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Sexmob: Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota)

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For Sexmob’s first studio recording in eight years, leader Steven Bernstein chose to sample from five different soundtracks composed by Nino Rota for the films of Italian auteur Federico Fellini. After playing the arrangements on tour for an entire year, the core quartet, together for 17 years now, knocked out all dozen songs in a single day. This blend of slow, thoroughgoing germination and gushing creativity is mirrored within many of the individual songs of Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti, and in the arc of the disc as a whole.

Rota’s broad, melody-laden compositions have proven to be fertile for jazz. In the liner notes, Bernstein cites Hal Willner’s brilliant Amacord Nino Rota (1980) for opening his mind to Rota. Nino Rota (2011) by accordionist Richard Galliano, with Dave Douglas and John Surman, among others, is a more recent notable example. But Sexmob’s take on Rota manages to be wide-ranging yet remarkably coherent, closer to their treatment of Prince and Duke Ellington than to their James Bond project, but with moments of clownish irreverence and homespun revelry that Fellini would have appreciated.

It starts quietly. The opener, “Amacord,” unfolds as an evocative dirge, only slightly leavened by the creamy horn voicings of “Il Teatrino Delle Suore,” from Bernstein’s unique valve/slide “hybrid” trumpet and the saxophone of Briggan Krauss. But before long, “Volpina” (also from Amacord) is being spiked by New Orleans syncopation, “Paparazzo” (La Dolce Vita) has Krauss depicting the pack of prying shutterbugs with skronks reminiscent of Sam Rivers, and “Nadia Gray” (La Dolce Vita) explodes like riot grrrl jazz, from the taunting treatment of the melody to Kenny Wollesen’s faux-sloppy drum solo. There is plenty more in the seams-this is Sexmob’s most nuanced album-and electric bassist Tony Scherr’s solo rendition of “Gelsomina” (from La Strada) helps bring the project to a smooth, gliding landing. When it’s over, you get the sense that there isn’t any style of music, from opera to Opry, that Bernstein and Sexmob can’t thrillingly reinvent.

Originally Published