by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 24, 2002) –Avant-garde jazz is typically thought of to be difficult listening: cerebral, noisy, disquieting. And often it is.
Mainstream jazz, on the other hand, is these days most often encountered as “America’s classical music,” with all the consequent starchiness that implies: dignity, formality, studiousness.
Both, of course, are self-imposed traps. If the avant-garde is only intellectual noise, it can’t possibly please audiences beyond a self-perpetuating elite. If mainstream jazz suits up and is unwilling to crack a smile, it cuts itself off from its populist origins and becomes a mere fossil of itself.
Enter Sex Mob, an unfortunately-named quartet of serious players, well versed in both jazz tradition and the avant-garde, whose mission is to rectify the dead-end ways of both genres.
At Club Helsinki on Saturday night, Sex Mob put the party back into the avant-garde and brought jazz back to the people. And the ensemble did both without compromise.
Watching Sex Mob today making exciting, adventurous nightclub music combining experimentation with a groove is probably what it was like seeing some of the early, small bebop groups in the 1940s, simply updated to account for the vast musical history that the players have been exposed to in the interim.
That may seem obvious, but there are probably more so-called jazz groups around playing as if it’s 1948 or 1953 than those like Sex Mob that acknowledge that it’s 2002, with everything that means in terms of jazz grammar, vocabulary, history and the influence of popular music of the last half century.
This last element is key. Creative jazz always has been about a vibrant relationship with the popular music of its time. This shouldn’t be a radical or revolutionary aspect of a contemporary jazz performance, but all too often it is. This is where the avant-garde, and particularly a group like Sex Mob, is renewing jazz by availing it of the part of its tradition that was always its creative wellspring.
Sex Mob was omnivorous in its musical appetite. Anything was fair game, from the theme music to James Bond movies to pop hits by the Rolling Stones and Prince. They drew from folk music (Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene”) and folk-rock (Stephen Stills’s “For What It’s Worth”). They deconstructed the melody of an Abba tune (“Fernando”) so that it sounded like a stumbling drunk, before bumping into a Mardi Gras celebration on the way to the Gulf.
Rarely does one see jazz players as attentive to each other and as visibly enthusiastic about what each other is playing as the members of Sex Mob were. All eyes were on bandleader Steven Bernstein for most of the show, and they had to be, as Bernstein conducted the group with the in-the-moment flair and drama of his classical namesake.
Bernstein wielded his unique instrument, the slide trumpet, with witty precision, exploring its capacity for vocal-style slurs and apostrophes and growls. Saxophonist Briggan Krauss was Bernstein’s mirror image on his instrument, alternating furious flurries of notes and alarms with quieter snippets of harmony.
Sex Mob would be inconceivable without bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Both approach their instruments without preconceived, circumscribed notions of what they can or can’t do, both in terms of what parts they can use to make sounds and what techniques they can use to make those sounds, and so they constantly surprise the audience and seemingly also their bandmates and themselves.
Such invention made for exhausting listening — not the painful exhaustion that comes from difficult, intellectual music, but the visceral, exhilarating exhaustion that comes from hanging on every note, phrase and turn of musical events in two hour-long sets of non-stop, surprising, avant-garde party music.[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 25, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]