Sex Mob is the courageous, ingenious, invigorating canvas on which bandleader Steven Bernstein paints mad jazz for the masses. The group — Bernstein on trumpet, Briggan Krauss on saxophones, bassist Tony Scherr, and drummer Kenny Wollesen — is on a mission to make serious jazz fun again. Having put out albums of James Bond music, having covered Nirvana and the Dead in a style suggesting Satchmo on uppers, having covered “Macarena”, McCartney’s “Live and Let Die”, and Ellington’s sacred “Come Sunday” on the same album, you know that Sex Mob is a force for subversive goodness. What’s next?
Sexotica seeks to reinvigorate exotica, a critically derided style of lounge music made primarily by the bandleader Martin Denny. Denny’s instrumental covers were flavored with the exotic — birdcalls, frogs croaking, rainforest percussion, South Pacific flourishes — and became a brief popular sensation in the 1950s. The latest Sex Mob album joins the meat-and-potatoes acoustic sounds of trumpet/alto/rhythm to contemporary electronic production courtesy of GoodandEvil (Brooklyn producers Danny Blume and Chris Kelly), creating something that borrows from exotica mainly in inspiration. The final project has less in common with exotica than it does with some of the other bold jazz that has been emerging on the band’s label, Thirsty Ear.
The traces of exotica here are mainly in the details. For example, “Dick Contino’s Blues” uses electronic percussive accents that are arguably cricket chirps or the buzzings of frog throats. “Pygmy Suite” incorporates a guttural shout (“Yahh Yayhhhhh”) that suggests eyes peering out at you from the edge of a jungle clearing. The percussion track of “Martin Denny” burbles rather than grooves, and “Exotique” features the kind of rhythm that would fit into the King Kong soundtrack during the sequences on Skull Island. But these touches are really the nutty window-dressing on a more substantive record.
“Lovin’ Blume” is a good example of Sex Mob’s significant ambition on this record. The track begins with a deliciously vocalized improvised line on alto by Krauss that sounds like a person speaking backwards. Scherr’s bass insinuates itself underneath, establishing a rubber-band groove that is complimented by a combination of acoustic drums and electronic production that sets up a fluid river of music. The trumpet and alto play a theme comprised of three staccato blasts followed by a jazz waver, then a series of long held notes that are processed for otherworldly sonic effect. GoodandEvil line the whole composition with blips and pops, samples of voices, scrapes and clatters — a production style that is less busy than it is seamless — with the random quality of some sounds dominated by the force of the groove. The improvisations by Bernstein and Krauss, in this context, can be harmonically daring without seeming jarring — they are like whimsical kids flitting over a set of awesome monkey bars rather than “serious” jazz avant-gardists trying to test the limits of your ear. This kind of thing is Sex Mob at its best: challenging, “serious” jazz that cloaks its intentions in the exterior pleasures of a good time. It’s the kind of music that makes you realize that free expression can serve the party in your head.
On Sexotica, my favorite tunes let Scherr establish something organic and propulsive on the bottom. His fast, three-note bass line on “Dick Contino’s Blues” is a pleasing substitution for the more brittle GoodandEvil grooves, and it gives way to a section of wholly acoustic playing under Bernstein’s trumpet and Krauss’s baritone that is as skipping and jazzy as anything you’ve heard by John Zorn’s Masada quartet or even Ornette Coleman. It’s delicious when this groove is overtaken again the subtle electronic sounds as the melody returns. This track is a triumph of combining acoustic and synthesized sounds with organic intelligence.
Not all of the tracks of Sexotica attain this kind of no-camp balance. “Quiet”, for example, reaches in a dozen directions at once and feels like mostly texture. The melody — sounding vaguely of one of Mr. Bernstein’s eastern European favorites — plays over a groove that combines kettle drums sounds, African polyrhythm, and plucked clutter suggestive of south Asia. All this, along with various whooooshes and spoken words and echoed bell sounds, adds up to a cool-sounding soundtrack for a non-existent movie but not a particularly compelling vehicle for the band. “Kid Rock Deluxe” starts with a promising acoustic bass ostinato but amounts to little more, with a keening melody and a bevy of hip-hoppery in the percussion department.
This sounds, however, like carping, and that is hardly fair to the imagination of Bernstein, his band, and his clever production partners. “Seven Bars” is everything you could ask for in genre-defying, up-to-the-minute jazz: strong statements from terrific instrumentalists, bold composition and arrangement, and the most remarkable combination of contemporary sounds and music history. At its center, “Seven Bars” lets the Sex Mob horns trade licks in conversational style, almost like the jazz of old, but as it moves on the tune becomes a full-out freak, with electronic and acoustic sounds gathering steam together in a flat-out rockin’ assault. As I’m sure Bernstein intended, this tune is a strong argument for the relevance and fun of “jazz” even in a largely synthetic, whatever-comes-after-rock-and-roll age.
The curiosity of Sexotica, perhaps, is that its greatest success seems to have little to do with Martin Denny and his loungey/cheesy inspiration. When the album gets hung up, perhaps, it honors Denny too directly. I wonder if the project would have been a true home run over the center field fence if Bernstein had left his original inspiration on the bench and simply let Sex Mob and GoodandEvil play together more freely. It’s not hard to imagine the best of this album living on long after exotica is a forgotten curiosity rather than an in-joke among cats as hip and knowledgeable as Steve Bernstein.