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Stay Tuned: Steve Bernstein, Sex Mob Rock Winter Jazz Fest

sex mobby Dan Cohen
Steven Bernstein, jazz trumpeter extraordinaire, long-time resident of Nyack and frontman for several distinguished bands, played Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on Friday with Sex Mob. The quartet— trumpet/alto sax/bass/drums— celebrated their 20th anniversary as part of Winter Jazz Fest (WJF) NYC, an annual festival that takes place at various watering holes in and around Greenwich Village. WJF hosts such a wide, wild assortment of styles and  bands and performers  you’d be forgiven if you thought it stood for ‘What in the Jazz Fuck?’
You know jazz. But really, what is jazz? How does it sound? What is it that distinguishes it from blues or funk or reggae or rock? Or what is the function of jazz, as an adjective, combined with any of these?
Let’s start with the solo. The genre has devolved to the solo. You can bet that any jazz band you see will take a song, run through the melody (the ‘head’) once or twice, and then, boom: each instrument solos in turn, the trumpet, the sax, the keyboard, whoever else. Sometimes the bass takes a solo. Sometimes not.  Sometimes the drums and the band will ‘trade eights.’ Sometimes not. An average song is about 10 minutes long. Even the most dazzling soloist, or perhaps especially him or her, follows this fairly predictable pattern.
Sex Mob turns this idea on its head. There are no solos. Or perhaps more accurately, you might say that there are four solos going on simultaneously, bumping into each other, saying “excuse me”… or else barreling right on through, giving strange and compelling tension to the performance that is sorely lacking in the traditional form. They hew to a more cinematic model. Film people will tell you that the most important question in a movie is “What happens next?” Whether in horror or in glee — the only must is curiosity. It is this curiosity that Sex Mob cultivates, whether wooing, teasing, stringing out songs or bringing them to an abrupt end. You have no idea where they’re going because it appears they don’t either. Bernstein will occasionally point to a player,  as if to say “Hey, what do you think?”  That player will then take the group in a new direction. Or layer what Bernstein is playing. Or…you just don’t know. Good jazz is often likened to a conversation — a colloquy between players, place, and audience. Sex Mob takes that directive seriously. Yet the band doesn’t seek to mimic ‘real’ conversation. It’s a musical conversation. There’s doubling, there are harmonies, there’s playing loud/soft/fast/slow, there’s playing something completely different from your partner, there’s playing something that’s almost the same. There is this parallel universe, divorced of reason, comprised only of sound, sounds sounding with other sounds, creating a kind of emotional narrative that is beyond the reach of words, of sense. That is music.
To accomplish this high wire act it helps to have an amazing group of musicians, and Sex Mob has that. In addition to Mr. Bernstein, there’s Briggan Krauss on alto sax, Tony Scherr on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Each displays a profound connection to their instrument, yet one that is worn lightly. At one point Wollesen was playing brushes that were huge, giant fantail things that made me think for a moment of brushes, real brushes, like paintbrushes, and it seemed somehow apt, as he was getting around the drumkit like a painter, creating splashes of sound, dark corners here, moments of shimmering light there. Not to say for a moment that the set was not heavily groove-based. Wolesen and Scherr are a rhythm section that can flat out j-j-jam, and they did, often. But not always. They were part of the conversation. Scherr plays an upright bass and gets a heavy, warm sound from it, fat and funky on the bottom like a Fender, but airy and expressive on the top, with that certain urgent string sound that only comes from an upright.
And Bernstein and Krauss feel like brothers in arms, a kind of rhythm section of their own. When not playing staccato bursts, Bernstein favors long, calming, almost meditative notes. At one point he played a simple major scale, from one octave down to the next, in this slow, intent manner. It seemed to take forever but it had a kind of epic rightness to it, like Is he going to do that all…the…way…down? And he did. And you’re like “Oh. I wasn’t expecting that.”
The other thing that is noticeably different about Sex Mob, and which they capitalize on continually, is the lack of a piano or guitar. Usually there’s a piano or guitar in a band, and usually they play chords. Because they can. Chords are multiple notes played at the same time. Chords indicate a key. Chords tie you to a certain structure, a certain sound, that this band is able to get past. Or toy with, I suppose. Most of the time, the band plays a tune, a lick, a section, and they’re all in the same key, on the same page, as it were. But then they can start playing with it. Bernstein plays a slide trumpet and loves noting more than to slide in and out of a key area. Krauss can play a hauntingly beautiful melody, but can also squawk and honk with the best of them. At one point Bernstein used a mute, played right up close to the mic and you’d swear you were hearing an electric guitar. He played a screaming guitar solo on trumpet. Then Krauss, not to be outdone, took to his mic and made his instrument sound, I swear to God, exactly like a screaming Les Paul guitar solo! And then they went at it. And then they made up. I think. To close the set they played an inspired reinvention of “Changes,” the David Bowie tune, bubbling it up out of a funky jam they were winding down, yet delivering the chorus in triumphal fashion, with not a few audience members singing along.
All of which is to say that Sex Mob is a treat. A band full of surprises, even twenty years on. And an antidote to the tired old jazz formula.

Dan Cohen is a songwriter, music producer, and freelance writer. His reviews and reporting have appeared in SF Weekly, High Country News, the legendary North Conway Mountain Ear, and elsewhere. He performs for kids as Danna Banana. He lives in Nyack.

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