Steven Bernstein's Sex Mob: Exposed!
The Lower East Side of Manhattan can be a brazenly incongruous place. Crumbling tenement buildings house low-lit cocktail lounges. Bodegas brush against boutiques. Synagogues and sweatshops mark the loose threads of an urban fabric, roughshod and unresolved. It’s a zone where hipness is well-tended and history crops up underfoot.
In other words, it’s a perfect setting for Sex Mob, the rogue outfit that has, by force of personality and persistence, managed to bring the whole spectrum of America’s music into a provocative and loose-limbed embrace.
On two rain-streaked days in December, that embrace went live to tape at Loho Studios, just a few blocks from Tonic, the band’s second home. The occasion was Sex Mob’s fourth studio recording, but toward the end of the run it felt more like an open-ended hang. Critics, musicians and friends mingled in the studio lounge at ease—not a difficult task, with Miles Davis on the stereo and beers in the fridge. In the control room, bandleader/trumpeter Steven Bernstein posed for a snapshot holding a plaque: Sex Mob's “Beyond” group of the year distinction in the 2002 Down Beat critics’ poll. Then he slipped out to the kitchen and loaded a paper plate with Chinese takeout, scatting Miles’ solo on “Trane’s Blues.”
Before long the session reconvened. Bernstein put his slide trumpet aside to grab a mellophone; fellow Mobsters Briggan Krauss, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen manned their stations on baritone saxophone, bass and drums, respectively. Nearly a dozen guests joined the ranks—on Wurlitzer, tuba and various other horns—giving Studio A the feel of a high school band room. From the center of the floor, free-jazz luminary Roswell Rudd clutched his trombone. Beside him, Bernstein surveyed the troops.
“You guys ready to make a march?” he asked, in the let’s-go tone of an offensive coach. “We’ll improvise. Roswell’s in charge.” By way of response, Rudd issued a tremendous blurting sound from his horn.
There was a pregnant pause—that heavy silence before tape begins to roll. Someone said: “I’ve never done a march before.”
“There’s always a first time,” Bernstein replied. Another pause. “That’s what this band is about, right?”
Moments later the room erupted into lurching cacophony, as the ragtag ensemble played a march unhindered by key or theme. The studio’s seven horns worked with and against each other, shifting shapes and tonalities along the way. Sonically it was like a Federico Fellini dream sequence, or a mushroom-tripping Salvation Army band.
The next take, momentarily christened “Three-Minute Rainforest,” went even further afield. Rudd and Bernstein grabbed Haitian Rara horns; others played mouth organs, shakers, slide didgeridoos. In the control room, engineer Scott Harding wheeled around the soundboard, flipping switches and turning dials. The music coming through the speakers was ambient soup, but it gradually built to a climatic frenzy. At which point someone nudged Harding and pointed out Scott Robinson through the glass. Robinson had swapped his slide saxophone for an even less-conventional instrument. Harding looked up and shook his head. “This cat’s playing the fucking Down Beat plaque.”
The whole scene brought back something Rudd had observed during the session break. “The openness is there,” he’d said. “The possibility for unknown things to happen. That’s the beauty of Sex Mob.”
For a particular cross-section of New Yorkers, Sex Mob embodies the sound of Downtown: insistent, elastic, unrepentant, unfazed. The deconstruction of familiar themes has long been a band trademark—and unquestionably a key reason for the Mob’s notoriety beyond the standard jazz crowd. Din of Inequity (Knitting Factory), the band’s 1998 debut, included fare by Prince and the Beatles; more recently there was the self-descriptively titled Sex Mob Does Bond (Ropeadope).
But Sex Mob started out in 1995 with a repertoire of a different sort. Bernstein, who had been asked to put together a late-night house band for the Knitting Factory’s Tap Bar, conceived the group as a modern-day version of the New York Art Quartet—the short-lived but legendary free-jazz unit cofounded in the mid-’60s by Roswell Rudd. It was in this progressive spirit that the group first coalesced—routinely playing with fire, and with a rotating cadre of guests.
“The original Sex Mob stuff always ended up with like 13 people in the little Tap Bar,” Bernstein explains a couple of months after the session. The trumpeter has arranged a band dinner (sans Wollesen, who’s on tour) at a restaurant in Chinatown, on the far fringe of the Lower East Side. “We were really out. We had no record; we were just going for it. And that’s really what that session felt like: just this thing that erupted and happened. It kind of captured that feeling, I thought.”
Sex Mob has always pursued “that feeling,” regardless of the material. But it would be disingenuous to claim that the material makes no difference. The band’s first brush with pop tunes came at the Tap Bar, after playing a Bond theme that provoked huge audience response. Bernstein began slipping more covers into the book—although notably, Louis Armstrong was just as prominent an addition as Sly and the Family Stone. Eventually there was also ABBA, Nirvana, the Grateful Dead and the “Macarena.”
The fact that this has become the primary feature of Sex Mob’s public identity is a matter of small annoyance to the group. “Everyone says Sex Mob’s a cover band,” Bernstein says. “Yeah, that’s part of what we do. But I don’t think we play ABBA’s [‘Fernando’] as a silly cover. I think it’s a beautiful melody. And I may make a joke in the middle of it, during one part, because I want everyone to laugh. But when it comes time to play that melody, I’m not fucking around, man. I could play that melody a lot more honestly than I could play ‘’Round Midnight.’ When I play ‘’Round Midnight’ I’m thinking about Miles Davis; I’m not thinking about me. And it’s like: ‘I’m not Miles Davis, man.’ So I always feel kind of dishonest when I play a song like that. Because I don’t know what that song has to do with me. But when I play that ABBA song, that feels like something.”
Besides, he says, “They didn’t call Count Basie a cover band, but how many Count Basie songs did Count Basie play? They didn’t call Louis Armstrong a cover band. They didn’t call Miles a cover band; how many Miles Davis songs did he play in the set? They didn’t call ’em cover bands—they were bands. We’re just a band.”
Dime Grind Palace (Ropeadope), the first official Sex Mob album not to feature pop songs, seems an especially purposeful demonstration of this point. Given the improvisational focus, the original compositions and the cavalcade of guests, the record signals a return to the fundamentals, a dramatic full-circle sweep. Whether laying down a soul groove or a Viennese waltz, the band stays true to its calling.
“There’s very definitely a language and a sensibility behind [Sex Mob] that’s years deep,” offers bassist Tony Scherr, between spoonfuls of chili pepper soup. “It’s not a jam band, and it’s not a free-for-all. More than anything, it’s a sensibility. It’s usually pretty joyful. It’s not technical for technical’s sake—but not stupid for stupid’s sake either. There are plenty of moments where we’re just knuckleheads, but somehow there’s beauty in it, to my ear.”
In making the new record, Bernstein adds, he focused on the band aesthetic. “I spent a month writing music before the recording. I took some stuff, did my impression of the Sex Mob language and tried to capture that vibe. A lot of really funky, late-at-night….” He coughs, pauses, and shakes his head. “This soup is pretty potent, man,” he croaks. Coughs again. “Could be healthy, though.”
It’s tempting to cast the Sex Mob style as a tug-of-war between traditional and experimental urges. What undermines the analogy is the fact that there’s no conflict at the heart of their eclecticism. History touches even the group’s way-out excursions; their transgressions seldom come without a note of homage. And given the band’s lineage, this makes a certain kind of sense.
Bernstein grew up in Berkeley, Calif., and began playing jazz in elementary school, thanks to a pioneering program founded by jazz advocate Herb Wong and implemented by educator Phil Hardymon. There he met saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum; in junior high they played together in the Berkeley Free Jazz Unit, a group Apfelbaum had patterned after the Art Ensemble of Chicago. After high school, Bernstein headed east: to New York University, various gigs and the tutelage of seasoned big band and session trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell.
He also fell in with the renegade movement spearheaded by the likes of John Zorn, the Lounge Lizards and the Microscopic Septet. Characterized by high-energy performances, bold stylistic juxtapositions and guerilla sensibilities, these and other groups set the stage for the Downtown subculture from which the Knitting Factory, and later Tonic, would arise. Bernstein had in a sense been primed for this, and he quickly became a fixture on the scene. It’s been over two decades since Bernstein first tapped into that energy, but he still seeks it out—cultivates it, in fact. That rough immediacy, somehow perpetually fresh, is the most striking attribute of Sex Mob.
At the same time, Bernstein is a self-avowed jazz geek, with all the trappings and trimmings. His other active group, the Millennial Territory Orchestra, plays ’20s and ’30s numbers—by Preston Jackson, Buster Moten and Stuff Smith—with earnest, madcap zeal. (They also cover Stevie Wonder and John Lennon, a fact once again indicative of Bernstein’s canonical breadth.) The only thing missing from their interpretation is the stultifying museum-piece veneration endemic to most repertory projects. Bernstein courted a similar reverent irreverence when asked to coach an all-star period-piece band in the Robert Altman film Kansas City. More recently, tapped by Zorn for Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture series, Bernstein came up with Diaspora Soul, a careful calibration of Jewish themes and Gulf Coast grooves; and Diaspora Blues, a free-flowing session featuring saxophone legend Sam Rivers. In that same time period, Sex Mob fulfilled commissions for the Donald Byrd Dance Company (playing arrangements of Duke Ellington) and an Hourglass Group revival of the 1926 Mae West play Sex (old-timey burlesque fare).
Even Bernstein’s choice of instrument reflects the marriage of Downtown urges and an aficionado’s yen. The slide trumpet, or soprano trombone, is itself a piece of arcana: although used occasionally in jazz’s early days, the instrument went from novelty to obscurity, where it remained until Bernstein took it on. (“I hope you realize that the Sex Mob album is the first album in recorded history to feature the slide trumpet,” he wrote in a Web journal after Din’s release. “You can start a new section in your collection.”) The history buff in Bernstein is undoubtedly happy to have brushed away these cobwebs, finding a surefire way to distinguish his instrumental voice. And of course, there’s the instrument’s look-at-me factor, both a signature and selling point. When Bernstein formed his house band, it was partly as a showcase for the trippy horn; he almost called it “Slide Mob.”
Bernstein isn’t the only member of the Mob with both a jazz pedigree and a reach beyond. As a teenager, Tony Scherr played bass in the Woody Herman Orchestra; he also played guitar with his brother in a garage-rock band. Briggan Krauss “grew up in a really jazz-oriented house,” by his own estimation, even as he soaked in Seattle grunge. And Kenny Wollesen hails from a background as varied as his marathon discography would suggest. Outside of Sex Mob, the players pursue other passions. Krauss often dwells in thoughtfully experimental ambient music; among his recent unreleased gems is Lensing, a polyphonic suite for octet. Scherr fronts a sort of indie alt-country band featuring his original tunes; his self-produced debut Come Around, released last year on Smells Like Records, conveys a gritty but endearingly earnest aura. Wollesen is a founding member of the New Klezmer Trio and a dizzyingly prolific accompanist. He and Scherr also work together as an itinerant rhythm section, most visibly for guitarist Bill Frisell. They’re one half of the Ferdinandos, a folk-rock group led by the soft-spoken troubadour Jesse Harris, of Norah Jones songwriting fame. And speaking of Jones, she’s part of their circle too; they played on most of her auspicious Blue Note debut.
Sex Mob pulls all of these strands together in a tangle. There’s common ground for Bernstein’s wise-guy antics and Krauss’ brooding intensity; for the Tony-Kenny tag team and the radical repertory approach. “As much as it’s the music,” Bernstein says, “it’s the guys playing the music that makes it what it is.”
Although it serves as both reclamation and State of the Union, Dime Grind Palace doesn’t seem laden with an agenda. This is a direct result of the freewheeling Loho environment—and the work that went into the postgame splice. “As a producer I often find that I’m waiting for that moment of inspired wrongness,” says Harding (aka Scotty Hard), who has engineered every Sex Mob record; his credits also include discs by that other avant-groove outfit, Medeski Martin & Wood, as well as many hip-hop and dub releases. Harding didn’t have to wait long for chaotic inspiration this time; it was all over the place. During one set break in Studio A, Rudd offered his elliptical summation of the session. “You get this tremendously extroverted thing,” he said, “at the same time that you have this very mindful thing going on. And when you put that together, you have a human being, basically. So that music is like an organism. It has life: it gets up, walks around the room, gets into everybody else’s body. When you walk out the door into the street, there it is. It’s like another person, greater than the combination of all of us. So we’re in that stream. We’re all connected here.”
Bernstein had purposefully left the band in the dark until they were ready to record, and even then there were the unknown factors of Rudd and the other guests. Everyone understood that they’d be mostly cutting first or second takes. “There were a lot of disparate things going on,” Harding recalls. “I was just like: ‘Yeah, it’ll be fine, let’s just do it.’ And we got through it but at the end of all that, it was like: ‘Hmm. Gee, how are we going to put all this stuff together and have it make sense?’“
To Harding’s credit, the finished product not only makes sense but also offers smooth transitions and a consistent energy. The band does everything from free-bop to slow-groove to merry-go-round, with Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube” thrown in for kicks. There are a few other covers, as well, but only the jazz variety: Count Basie’s “Blue and Sentimental,” Herbie Nichols’ “Twelve Bars,” Professor Longhair’s “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand.” And with “Norbert’s Weiner,” Rudd contributes a waltz of his own. Throughout the album, regardless of added voices or studio tweaks, a simple but focused intensity emanates from the ensemble’s four-piece core. It’s the sound of Sex Mob, on a wire as usual: in the studio but unquestionably playing live.
Months after the recording, in late April, they find themselves doing so again—at Tonic, the converted kosher winery that succeeded the Knitting Factory as Sex Mob’s main stage. The band, once a late-night Friday staple, hasn’t played here in a while. (“It was getting too crowded,” Bernstein explains. Scherr clarifies: “They couldn’t afford security anymore, is what he’s trying to say.”) In fact, the room is still filling up when Scherr kicks off a droney bass line and Wollesen does his backbeat thing. Soon Bernstein and Krauss are sparring at the frontline, over an ad hoc soul rumination that morphs into an Ellington theme. Later on, tuba player Marcus Rojas, from the on-hiatus trio Spanish Fly, and Bernstein’s old pal Peter Apfelbaum join the fray. Both players were part of the Dime Grind gang.
Now they’ve reentered Sex Mob country, land of messy splendor. Bernstein, arms flailing, is a band-leading whirligig, compulsive and unhinged. His method bears some similarity to the improvisational “conduction” of avant-garde cornetist Butch Morris—but with a decidedly more attention-deficit execution. The whole thing is captivating, even when the tangle gets knotty or the signals get crossed. Bernstein’s guys push hard to keep apace with his peregrinations, and they appear almost harried at some of his shouted instructions. “Play some of that Easter shit for me!” he goads Krauss at one point, nonsensically. “Come on, represent your people!” The alto player coolly responds with a nimble multiphonic run.
The moment validates something Krauss had noted at dinner, months prior. “Sex Mob is really controlled,” he’d said. “Playing in the band, we know we’re going to get a lot of direction. We’re very focused on driving the band to where it’s going to go. But at the same time, I’ve never been in a band where I’ve felt so free, knowing that there’s still plenty of total space.”
There’s space enough during the set break, as the musicians mingle near the bar. Jesse Harris has turned up, and Bernstein razzes him: “He’s the hit-maker, right here! The one-note chorus, man! But at least my one-note chorus is in 3/4 time; it’s more complicated.” After the trumpeter turns away, Harris and Wollesen extend his riff. “All you’ve got to do is sell your soul,” the Grammy-winning songwriter Harris shrugs. “What’s your soul in eternity,” Wollesen teases, “in exchange for some money here on earth?”
It doesn’t get earthier than Sex Mob, regardless of which way the money flows. The new record practically reeks of sweat and soil. It might be a hit by jazz standards; it could easily flop. What matters is the fact that it catches the spirit, that infectious yet elusive Sex Mob vibe. If that ever fizzles out, the band will follow suit. But on this April night on the Lower East Side, there are no such signs. Having made an odd job of “Goldfinger,” they push forward into free-blowing terrain. Where it goes from there is anybody’s guess.
Dizzy Gillespie Paris 1973 (bootleg)
The Wailers Marin 1972 (bootleg)
Ray Charles The Birth of Soul box set (Atlantic)
Bill Harris Live at Birdland 1952 (Baldwin Street)
Billy Preston That’s the Way God Planned It (Apple)
Harlem Hamfats (Document compilations)
The Complete H.R.S. Sessions box set (Mosaic)
Bernstein Natural Slider slide trumpet custom built by Dick Akright
Custom mouthpiece by Greg Black based on design by Bob DeNicola
Shure Green Bullet microphone
Fender Champ amp
Originally published in October 2003