[9 May 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
More than 30 years ago, Hal Willner, the great master of the all-star jazz tribute project, released Amarcord Nino Rota, an album of Nino Rota covers that featured Bill Frisell, Steve Lacy, Muhal Richard Abrams, Wynton Marsalis, and Carla Bley, just to name a few. And while Nino Rota’s soundtrack work for the films of Federico Fellini is still floating around, a copy of Amarcord Nino Rota will criminally cost you 50 bones at the least. So if you wanted to hear a contemporary slant to Rota’s notable works, including “La Dolce Vita”, you were kind of out of luck…until now. Steven Bernstein’s Sexmob has come to the rescue, preserving a playful side of Rota’s music that we can all enjoy yet again.
For those of you who need a quick catching up, Steven Bernstein’s Sexmob have given themselves one task: to make modern jazz fun. They’ve pulled it off for the most part, thanks to the trendy practice of covering non-jazz tunes in a jazzy style (ABBA, Nirvana, Buffalo Springfield, a slew of James Bond themes). Of course, there are a few fans out there who have a hard time reconciling Sexmob’s jubilance with Bernstein’s more pensive Diaspora albums on John Zorn’s Tzadik label (part of the Radical Jewish Culture series), but it’s nothing that would keep most open-minded listeners awake at night. And when it’s up to you to make a genre more fun, you have to take yourself a little less seriously. Much like their no-wave/“fake” jazz predecessors the Lounge Lizards, you couldn’t always tell what passages of the music were high art and what was an elaborate joke at no one’s expense. It all came together in the same quirk, whether silly or serious, that stirred bright musicianship with odd-colored tones. If it moved you, then that’s what you call gravy.
Steven Bernstein has remained prolific over the years, but not always with Sexmob. After the Diaspora Suite, he devoted most of his time to the Millennial Territory Orchestra with only a live album featuring John Medeski to bear the Sexmob name. The fever-funked Sexotica from 2006 was the last studio recording the band did before Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota). And if Bernstein and company didn’t mean this album to be a gentle scratch behind the ears of jazz aficionados after the bewildering Sexotica (which was strangely nominated for a Grammy), then jazzbos should nevertheless feel a genuine invitation back to the party. Pasta for everyone!
The Sexmob format never comes close to overthrowing the material. If you loved the Federico Fellini/Nino Rota package before, Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti will not knock you off course. New fans of the Fellini/Rota package are an inevitability when the music is in the hands of Bernstein and his band, the most admirable goal behind any tribute album. Sure, Berstein plays a slide trumpet, sometimes distorted (test your tolerance on double-tongued “Nadia Gray”). And yes, bassist Tony Scherr plays an electric, not an upright. Kenny Wollesen’s kitwork can be downright dumbfounding. Sometimes it sounds like he’s playing the drums for a rock band instead of a jazz combo. And those drum fills…there are four bar breaks where he sounds too reckless to know what he’s doing! Of course, that’s not the case. I’ve purchased more than one Tzadik CD, so there’s got to be a jig to this whole thing. Amidst the occasional chaos, saxophonist Briggan Krauss rings as the genuine fit he’s always been.
But Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti doesn’t spill its cards all over the table at every hand. Most of it is quite subtle, retaining a reverent Sexmob character while never neutering the material. It bounces (“Volpina”), skronks (“Paparazzo”), strolls (“I Vitelloni”), mopes (“Gelsomnia”), and rocks (“The Grand Hotel”). For those of us who got to watch Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Romeo & Juliet (for which Rota composed the music) in high school, only to find ourselves exchanging double-takes with one another when Olivia Hussey suddenly flung herself out of bed one morning, Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota) can offer a brief return to that randiness you feel when you get a glimpse of something you weren’t supposed to see. As Hussey’s brief nudity served its purpose in a story of two young kids too horny to realize their own missteps, Sexmob’s sometimes straightforward and sometimes ramshackle take on Nino Rota’s music reminds us that the ever-flowing rivers of music can give you gleeful undercurrents. A masterpiece? You can certainly call it masterful.