Trumpeter Steven Bernstein is angling hard to go down in jazz annals as the anti-Wynton. He first threw down the gauntlet last year with Din of Inequity, a reverb-soaked iron fist upside the head of jazz complacency and the Columbia-affiliated debut of his band of jazz renegades collectively known as Sex Mob. Bernstein follows through with an even more provocative offering in Solid Sender, an alternative jazz slamathon teeming with irony and underscored by big-as-a-house backbeats, ultra-grooving upright basslines, multiphonic shriekback saxophone and all manner of sonic subversion.
This is not to suggest that Steven is merely behaving badly, an angry young man defying convention for the sake of it by stomping his feet and overblowing with cathartic ferocity. Indeed, Bernstein is as skillful and soulful as he is devilishly clever. As a slide trumpeter, he is indelibly tied to the vocal tradition of Roy Eldridge and Louis Armstrong, though he more closely affects the freer, tongue-in-cheek stylings of Don Cherry and Lester Bowie. As an agitator, he is coming out of the Ken Kesey school, with perhaps a few lessons garnered from Jerry Rubin and the Yippies.
The very idea of a jazz band covering tunes by Nirvana ("About a Girl"), Abba ("Fernando"), Buffalo Springfield ("For What It's Worth") and the Rolling Stones ("Ruby Tuesday") is subversive in and of itself; the sonic equivalent of tossing stink bombs onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. And what Sex Mob does to Ellington's "The Mooch" would no doubt cause heart palpitations up at Lincoln Center. But they make no apologies for their raw, rock-heavy prankster approach. They aren't going to win over the stuffed shirts or get any gigs at the Village Vanguard with this kind of raucous, free-spirited assault. But there is a growing audience for creative instrumental music that draws from a psychedelic tradition, and Sex Mob is tapping into that niche.