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Sex Mob: Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti (Sex Mob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota)

Troy Collins By

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Founded 17 years ago as a showcase for leader Steven Bernstein's unique slide trumpet, Sex Mob has since embraced a far more ambitious mission: to revive the adventurous spirit of prewar jazz. Bernstein realized early on that playing radically altered covers was the best way to lure an audience into his roguish sound world. Since then the group has deconstructed and reworked everything from ABBA's "Fernando" to the "Macarena," while 2001's Sex Mob Does Bond (Ropeadope) was dedicated solely to avant-garde interpretations of John Barry's iconic movie soundtracks.

The primary inspiration behind Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti (Sex Mob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota), Sex Mob's first studio recording in seven years, can be attributed to a quote from legendary Italian director Federico Fellini, who said, "My films, like my life, are summed up in circus, spaghetti, sex, and cinema." Bernstein's idiosyncratic arrangements of Nino Rota's memorable scores for Fellini's films encompass myriad styles, ranging from the spry exuberance of early Dixieland to the exquisite beauty of Old World balladry.

In the liner notes, Bernstein states that Hal Wilner's eclectic tribute record, Amarcord Nino Rota (Hannibal, 1980), was a seminal influence, and it's easy to envision how the legendary producer's all-embracing aesthetic encouraged the young Bernstein—who has since worked with Wilner in a variety of contexts. Reinforcing Bernstein's markedly diverse approach, the band interprets the festive "Amacord" as a regal fanfare, transforms the ebullient melody of "La Dolce Vita" into bluesy New Orleans swing, and tears into the surf rave-up "Nadia Gray" with punkish fury.

Signifying a return to form, the longstanding quartet imbues these timeless themes with a soulful vitality devoid of excess studio manipulation, unlike the heavily produced Sexotica (Thirsty Ear, 2006). The distorted smears and earthy slurs that emanate from the leader's slide trumpet are key facets of the lineup's expressionistic style—as are the frenetic cadences unleashed by Briggan Krauss' acerbic alto and husky baritone. Balancing frenzy and finesse, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen execute Bernstein's capricious charts with a deft combination of pugilistic downbeats and stately accents. An episodic version of "The Grand Hotel" demonstrates the ensemble's vast dynamic range, which veers from blistering hardcore fraught with caterwauling horns and whiplash rhythms to hushed pointillism delivered at the threshold of audibility.

Whether recasting the wistfully nostalgic "Il Teatrino Delle Suore" as a smoldering post-bop workout or transposing the lush melodic strains of "La Strada" into a melancholy blues dirge, Sex Mob instills Rota's evocative scores with a freewheeling, modernistic verve that emphasizes the lasting durability of the composer's oeuvre. Alternating between bold reimagining and reverential homage, Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti is a salient reminder of Bernstein and his intrepid crew's interpretive prowess.

Track Listing: Amacord; Il Teatrino Delle Suore (Juliet of the Spirits); La Strada; Volpina (Amacord); Paparazzo (La Dolce Vita); Toby Dammit's Last Act (Spirits of the Dead); La Dolce Vita; Zamparo (La Strada); Nadia Gray (La Dolce Vita); The Grand Hotel (Amacord); Gelsomina (La Strada); I Vitelloni.

Personnel: Steven Bernstein: slide trumpet, hybrid trumpet, alto horn; Briggan Krauss: alto saxophone, baritone saxophone; Tony Scherr: electric bass; Kenny Wollesen: drums, gongs, log drum, waterphone, vibraphone.

Title: Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti (Sex Mob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota) | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Royal Potato Family

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