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Hot 9 Brings 1920s Jazz to Cleveland Museum of Art

Often when groups play classic early jazz, they approach the music as period pieces to be performed reverentially.

That’s not what you’ll hear when the Hot 9 plays jazz from the 1920s and 30s at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Trumpeter Steven Bernstein, who co-leads the ensemble with pianist Henry Butler said that the group has no interest in re-creating the past.

“Our philosophy is learn this music and play it with your own stamp on it. We certainly pay respect to the form and style of the music, but we play it in the moment,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein, a mainstay on the downtown New York jazz scene for decades first worked with the New Orleans based Butler when both were part of a touring group of musicians known as the “Kansas City All-Stars” that Verve Records sent on the road, in the wake of the 1996 Robert Altman’s jazz-heavy film, “Kansas City.”

“At that point, we realized we had a lot in common,” Bernstein said.

Flash forward to 2011, when Bernstein invited Butler to sit in with his Millennial Territory Orchestra.

“The first time he played with MTO we realized, ‘oh-there’s some magic happening here,’ Bernstein said.

The following year, the two formed the Hot 9. The band gave them both a chance to explore their shared interest in music from New Orleans, in particular that of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton from the 1920s.

After the band played a few nights at the New York City club, “Jazz Standard,” Butler approached Bernstein about making a change in the band.

“Henry suggested that we bring in a New Orleans rhythm section. Since it was his music, we did it for the record. It was a real eye opener for me, how much that rhythmic engine of New Orleans music just changes everything. The New Orleans feel is so specific and once you put that in the music, it changes everything,” Bernstein said.

That change became very apparent to Bernstein when the band recorded the Jelly Roll Morton piece “ Buddy Bolden’s Blues.” After the track was cut, Bernstein told drummer Herlin Riley, a native of New Orleans who performed on the piece, that he had waited his whole life to have someone play underneath him the way Riley did.

“Herlin played it correctly. When the rhythmic feels like that, then you can play all the proper things on top of it. Since he gave the proper rhythmic feel, I could suddenly play all the things that were in my head, that I hadn’t had the opportunity to play because I was never able to play it over that kind of rhythm, “ Bernstein said.”

Bernstein describes the Hot 9 as a band that “takes no prisoners.”

“We just go. The band is so captivating. It’s the best of both worlds, because you have the flexibility of a small band where anything can happen, but you have also the benefits of a large band where you have the kinds of great arrangements that pull people together,” Bernstein said.

Steven Bernstein and Henry Butler and their Hot 9 play the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium Wednesday at 7:30 pm. The concert is presented in conjunction with the CMA exhibit “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s.”

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