If there’s one thing jazz trumpeter Steven Bernstein hates, it’s a jazz show.
“A bunch of guys with beards, just sitting there … I can think of nothing more boring,” he relates, without a trace of irony.
Sure, it seems an odd indictment at first, coming from him. The country’s only professional slide trumpeter, Bernstein has become a stellar fixture in New York City’s downtown jazz scene, well-known for his involvement with John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, and for co-fronting the trio Spanish Fly — in addition to his work with the Sex Mob, a group that got its start playing free shows at the city’s famous Knitting Factory.
But the kind of jazz Bernstein makes is not the fussily abstract sort that’s fodder for earnest music professors. It’s simplified (at least on the surface), amplified (both in volume and in spirit), and intravenously charming.
In other words, you don’t have to understand it to enjoy it.
Bernstein wants to desanitize jazz. But he won’t brook any comparisons to the passel of other groups he claims are on the same mission.
“There are a lot of good bands out there that have [similar] ideas, but they’re not as experienced as we are,” he asserts in a no-nonsense New York accent. In the case of Sex Mob, this statement is more than bravado: Bernstein has played and recorded with an impressively diverse array of luminaries including Digable Planets, Aretha Franklin and Mel Torme; he also contributed to the Academy-nominated score for the film Get Shorty, as well as Robert Altman’s jazz Valentine, Kansas City. The Mob’s alto saxophonist (Briggan Krauss) and bassist (Tony Scherr) are also well-known, veteran New York scene-sters, and drummer Kenny Wolleson — a founding member of the New Klezmer Trio — has played with Tom Waits and Sean Lennon.
Sex Mob plays jazz for people who think they hate jazz. But their vision is not necessarily a radical one. Quite the opposite — they’re staunch traditionalists.
“Jazz didn’t used to be like it is now,” explains Bernstein. “People [today] think of Benny Goodman as a cornball, but [he attracted] a bunch of crazy, drunken kids [to] his shows. … And when Louis Armstrong first played, it was the wildest music you could find. That [wildness] has been taken away from jazz, and I’m trying to put it back.”
Yesterday’s jazz, emphasizes Bernstein, was far from the indulgent intellectual exercise it’s considered today.
“It was pop music,” he declares. “People like Louis Armstrong played pop songs — which at that time were vaudeville songs — in a jazzed-up way. Then people starting writing their own songs, and jazz became too much of an abstraction. It lost people. People didn’t know what it was. They had no reference point. … That’s why I like to play songs that everybody knows.”
Consequently, the Mob’s new CD, Din of Inequity, (Columbia/Knitting Factory Records, 1998) contains mostly covers. Though Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” gets reverential handling, little else does. The mere presence of the cheesy “Macarena” on the disc’s liner notes clues you to the work’s droll flippancy of the work before you even press the play button, while the band’s radiant treatment of The Cardigans’ “Been It” displays Bernstein’s passion for melody.
He contends that selecting which songs to cover is a random process (“I just pick songs that I like”), but the leader of the self-proclaimed “workingest band in New York” admits that there are specific requirements a song has to meet to become a Sex Mob tune.
“It has to have enough melody to translate into the Sex Mob format,” Bernstein explains. “We tried to do [The Who’s] “My Generation,” but [the melody] wasn’t strong enough.”
Even with strong melodies, making exciting instrumental music can be a challenge. Bernstein’s strategy includes the seductive power of the slide trumpet, from which he’s able to coax notes he could never persuade a traditional trumpet to produce.
The instrument has been around since the birth of jazz, but the only other person he’s aware of who still plays it lives in Italy.
“It looks … like a small trombone, and it’s really cool,” Bernstein says. “Every time I pick it up, I find that people are more into it. With a regular trumpet, you have your buttons, and you’re just hoping you can get the right note, y’know? But with [the slide trumpet], you can get any note you want from it — it’s like a voice.”
Indeed, Bernstein’s alluring version of Prince’s “Sign of the Times” sweats a crescendo of attitude that makes the original sound like a nursery rhyme.
“We make music that almost any music lover will be attracted to,” the musician boasts. “Fans of instrumental music can come and listen, or people like me, who are buying the new Tricky album and the new Bjork album, or listening to Nirvana — regular music fans. Or someone who just wants to go and get drunk and meet girls … just regular people who like to hang out.”
Even jazz snobs have expressed a fondness for Sex Mob, he insists. And, as it turns out, Bernstein’s penchant for making popular music doesn’t preclude his lofty opinion of his own band.
“You take people like Wynton Marsalis, people that are constantly held up as a barometer of excellence in jazz — not that they’re not great, but we’re just as good,” he trumpets, adding, “We could go up against anybody.”