After almost 20 years, Sex Mob has still got it. Slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s quartet of merry pranksters continues to delight and surprise with each album. Cultural Capital, the group’s ninth, is its first made up entirely of Bernstein’s compositions, and it’s as wild as each that it has preceded it. In the past the quartet of Bernstein, saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen has tackled pop songs (ABBA’s “Fernando,” Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times,” etc.), Duke Ellington standards, James Bond themes, avant-garde pieces and Nino Rota movie music, but this time it’s all original material.
It’s a weird, wonderful mix of hot jazz, free jazz, New Orleans street music, funk and rock. The beautiful thing about these 13 tunes is that you never know what’s going to come next. The funk of “Street” leads to the Latin exotica of “Step Apache” leads to the Dixieland/rock amalgam of “Bari Si” leads to the dirge of “Helmland.” “SF” is an exercise in minimalism—a sparse rock beat, a simplistic bass pattern and two horns wailing in unison. “Golden House,” the disc’s longest tune, takes an aggressive approach to second-line music—and then gives it almost a Tom Waits feel, with someone snarling, “Who’s at the door?” Yes, there’s a lot going on. Bernstein sneakily transforms from thoughtful, expressive musician to growling, slide-trumpeting madman. Then there are moments when the band gets into a groove and lets it happen, as it does on “Valentino,” with a simple, two-bar phrase serving as the foundation. As Bernstein and Sex Mob have grown, the gimmickry of monkeying with pop songs has given way to full-throttled innovation. Sex Mob has come a long way, and it still thrills.