by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 22, 2002) – Steven Bernstein’s quartet, Sex Mob, usually gets lumped in with the downtown-jazz avant-garde. This is in part because Bernstein and his Sex Mob bandmates are stalwarts of that scene, often found playing in avant-garde nightclubs like the Knitting Factory and Tonic, and because they incorporate the vocabulary of the avant-garde – the squeaks and squawks and the dizzying cross-genre references – into their playing.
But as Bernstein is quick to point out, Sex Mob’s basic approach – that of a party band playing jazz versions of popular hit tunes — is deeply rooted in jazz tradition.
“All jazz has always been to take something that could be seen as syrupy muzak and if it’s a good melody, to put it in your own language,” said Bernstein in a recent phone interview from his home in Nyack, N.Y. “That’s why we’re traditional.”[Bernstein brings his slide trumpet and his band, Sex Mob, with longtime band members Briggan Krauss on alto saxophone, and Tony Scherr on bass, along with special guests Roswell Rudd on trombone, John Medeski on keyboards, and Ben Perowsky on drums, for Bernstein’s 50th birthday celebration, to Club Helsinki in Hudson, N.Y., on Friday, October 7, 2011, at 9. Bernstein performs the following night in Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, N.Y., where he is a regular member of the house band.]
Just as jazz bands in the 1930s and ‘40s played compositions by their leaders and jazz arrangements of tunes from the contemporary hit parade, Sex Mob’s repertoire combines original Bernstein compositions with twisted versions of familiar pop tunes by the likes of James Brown, Nirvana, Prince, Abba and the Grateful Dead.
Sex Mob’s particular take on these tunes tends to blend a classic, New Orleans feel, heavy on the funk, with a witty, irreverent avant approach, one part Frank Zappa, one part Archie Shepp. The players bring their diverse influences to the table, ranging from Scherr’s work with Woody Herman to Wollesen’s stint with Tom Waits to Bernstein’s role leading the Kansas City All Star Band that toured in conjunction with Robert Altman’s 1996 film, “Kansas City.”
Bernstein is a long-time member and musical director of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, and has recorded and performed with artists as various as Lou Reed, Tricky, Bootsy Collins, John Zorn, Marianne Faithful, Aretha Franklin, They Might Be Giants, Don Byron, DJ Logic, Mel Torme and Medeski, Martin and Wood.
In addition to Sex Mob, Bernstein leads the Millennial Territory Orchestra and Diaspora Soul, a group that plays traditional Jewish melodies in Afro-Cuban arrangements. Bernstein has orchestrated, arranged and conducted films scores for Get Shorty, Kansas City and Clay Pigeons. His recent work in dance and theater includes a new suite of Ellingtonia for Donald Byrd, and the score to the recent remounting of Mae West’s 1926 play, Sex. In 1998, Bernstein presented A Coronation of the King at Art at St. Anne’s. A tribute to King Curtis, the work featured Cornell Dupree and David “Fathead” Newman.
With Sex Mob, Bernstein is as likely to offer a trippy rendition of Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche” as a bluesy version of Stephen Stills’s “For What It’s Worth” or a dub version of the Rolling Stones’s “Ruby Tuesday.”
Sex Mob’s albums include Solid Sender and Din of Inequity. The group’s most recent recording is Sex Mob Does Bond, a full-length album featuring reinterpretations of the incidental and theme music John Barry wrote for several James Bond films.
Bernstein already had several Bond tunes in his repertoire before he decided to tackle the composer’s tunes as an entire project. “John Barry’s music is the perfect composite of jazz, classical and pop,” said Bernstein. “The music has the harmony of classical, the simple melodic line of pop music, and the exciting rhythmic vitality of jazz. It’s unique to find a composer who naturally has those three elements.”
The combination of those elements was perfect for Sex Mob’s cross-disciplinary, avant-garde approach. On Sex Mob Does Bond, the group revisits the music from films including “Goldfinger,” “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and “From Russia With Love.” Keyboardist John Medeski, who occasionally shows up at Club Helsinki unannounced, joined the band for this recording project.
Bernstein was born and raised in Berkeley. His first trumpet teacher was Phil Hardymon, whose other students included Peter Apfelbaum, Bennie Green, Joshua Redman and Charlie Hunter.
As a youngster, Bernstein heard Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon and Cecil Taylor, along with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Sly and the Family Stone.
“At that age it’s all one thing,” said Bernstein about those early musical experiences. “You’re not old enough to know what’s hard to do. It all seems hard to do.”
Bernstein moved to New York in 1979, at the height of the jazz-loft scene and the avant-punk-funk explosion. While he spent weekends at the Squat Theater and the Mudd Club listening to Defunkt, Sun Ra, James White and the Blacks and Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, his trumpet teacher was Jim Maxwell, a legendary studio trumpeter who started with Benny Goodman at age 18 and played with Ellington, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong.
Thus, Bernstein’s influences are drawn from both the traditional and the avant-garde jazz world, although Bernstein doesn’t differentiate between the two.
“At this point the avant-garde is traditional,” he said. “The music began in the early sixties. It’s already forty years old. That’s the same difference between then and 1922, playing King Oliver music in 1962.
“So it’s very old fashioned. The concept up until then was instruments were still supposed to go along the lines of Sousa/Armstrong/Ellington. Briggan and I make a lot of sounds like that, beautiful melodies.
“But then we also make those squawking sounds. That’s what people call avant-garde. But now everyone’s heard that a million times since the 1960s. So it’s just part of the language now. We’re just as comfortable referring to Albert Ayler as we are to Louis Armstrong. That’s just part of our generation.
“The avant-garde is never going to be that comfortable for people to listen to. By its nature it’s music of a turbulent time. It’s not toe-tapping music. It’s ‘let’s take some acid and change the world’ music. It was never ‘sit down and cook some nice food, drink wine and listen to Albert Ayler.’ That’s always going to be Harry Connick music.
“You can’t put a Sex Mob record on in the background. Eventually something’s going to come up and someone’s going to say, ‘Can you turn that off?’ You can’t play this record in a restaurant. People will be choking on the food.
“The avant-garde thing, it’s the music of change, not background music.”[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 22, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]