How best to describe slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein
's singular quartet Sex Mob? Maybe we should start with mercurial musical magician Bernstein himself, whose exotic career as sideman, musical director, arranger and composer has included ten years with John Lurie
's Lounge Lizards and stints alongside everyone from Bill Frisell
to Sam Rivers
, the Flying Karamazov Brothers and, oh yes, Bootsy Collins. Or maybe we should look at his career as bandleader, which includes the trumpet-slide guitar-tuba trio Spanish Fly and the boisterous, cataclysmic nine-piece Millennial Territory Orchestra. Or maybe we should just listen to Bernstein's own summing up of Sex Mob (which began life in residency in 1995 at the Knitting Factory's "late night hang" as a vehicle for Bernstein's own compositions and quickly morphed into a band covering everything from film composer John Barry's James Bond music to Duke Ellington
to Prince): "Jazz used to be popular music. People would go out to clubs, listen to the music, go home and get laid. Simple as that. We're bringing that spirit back."
"That spirit"one of wailing, riotous abandon mixed with eccentric song choices, high musicianship and healthy doses of funky downtown gritis on ample display on the group's first live recording, Meets Medeski
, waxed at Switzerland's Willisau Jazz Festival. Less of a meeting than a reuniongroove god John Medeski is an old cohort of the band and can be found on the group's first release, 1998's Din of Inequity
the disc is divided into three seamless "suites," each of which intersperses a couple of originals with covers of Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy," Count Basie
's "Blue and Sentimental," two Prince tunes, four Barry "Bond" cuts and (I kid you not) "Down on the Farm" and "Little Liza Jane."
It is, in short, an absolute gas. And it works, thanks to Bernstein's impeccable taste and leadership. For all his mischievous rambunctiousness, Bernstein is both a rigorous designer of musical soundscapes and an exacting conductor; no matter how loose the band seemingly hangs, he keeps it under a watchful eye and the music stays concise and true. (Case in point: the longest tune on the CD clocks in at just over six minutes, a somewhat astonishing achievement for a live jazz disc.) As with any Sex Mob show, the Bond tunes are a highlight: both the calamitous "Oddjob," with Bernstein's ragged trumpet soaring atop Medeski's alternately delicate and bombastic Hammond B3, and Barry's gorgeous "You Only Live Twice," done as boozy, woozy, soul-inflected '60s scream, are sublime. Medeski, as expected, sounds terrific in this context (check out his brusque, rampaging solo over Kenny Wollesen
's tumbling drums on "Down on the Farm").
Personnel: Steven Bernstein: slide trumpet; Briggan Krauss: alto saxophone; John Medeski: organ; Tony Scherr: bass; Kenny Wollesen: drums, percussion.