One jazz critic, praising the popular series of midnight shows Steven Bernstein's Sex Mob played at New York's Knitting Factory in 1996 and 1997, dubbed the band's namesake "the anti-Wynton" -- a reference to the musical Marsalis family's most famous son. "I want to do a battle of the bands with Wynton," Bernstein told Down Beat magazine in February. "Sex Mob vs. his quintet. Or I'll take on his big band. But I'd do it, man."
Bernstein says the dare was made to illustrate the wide spectrum of music he'd like to spring on listeners. He doesn't want a reputation as the guy who disses the crowned prince of jazz. "Listen, I love Wynton," he says from his home in New York. "I've always liked his playing, and I really like some of his new compositions. I called him up, and he said he was cool with `the remark`. I honestly would like to do something with him. It would be fun."
Still, the nickname fits. Marsalis often goes for tonal purity and consistent intonation in his trumpet playing. Bernstein is a virtuoso of the slide trumpet, an oddball instrument that tends to bray, croak and veer out of tune. Marsalis and his musical kin often turn in work that's studied and overbaked. Bernstein's approach thrives on spontaneity. The buttoned-up players act as if their music were as serious as grand-jury testimony. Bernstein, as demonstrated by his mugging and joking around at last year's Pop Jazz Festival in Gainesville, spikes high-caliber, adventurous playing with infectious humor. The neo-classicists cling tightly to jazz from half a century ago. Bernstein, inspired by everyone from Jelly Roll Morton to Tricky, borrows, shreds and appropriates at will.
He demonstrates those catholic tastes on "Din of Inequity," Sex Mob's debut album. The disc has sold modestly since its release last summer and gained favor on college radio and a handful of jazz stations. Bernstein, alto saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen take on Prince's "Sign o' the Times," the traditional "House of the Rising Sun," James Bond movie themes "Goldfinger" and "Live and Let Die," the Cardigans' "Been It," Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" and even the cheesy Latin-dance hit "Macarena." The quartet grooves hard, lays down the funk, swings with authority and skids off into free terrain. New Orleans parade music shows up, as do blues, gospel and bebop.
Bernstein's selection of tunes practically guarantees easy access to his music. "One of the problems with jazz composition is that not many people are really good jazz composers," he says. "There is something to be said for a melody that's hummable. Most people, when they hear a head `theme` and a lot of long solos, they just turn off. ... They're just distrustful. I'm trying to bring back music with real strong rhythm and real strong melody, and get people used to hearing a solo."
He comes by his open-minded approach naturally, via a wildly eclectic resume. Bernstein was the longtime musical director for John Lurie's Lounge Lizards and co-leader of a twisted trio called Spanish Fly, arranged soundtrack music for "Get Shorty" and "Kansas City," and led a touring band that featured musicians heard in the latter film. He's worked with a long list of pop, R&B, hip-hop and punk employers, including Aretha Franklin, They Might Be Giants, Foetus, Digable Planets, Bootsy Collins, Carla Bley, Allen Toussaint, Mel Torme and Medeski, Martin and Wood. He recently organized a King Curtis tribute concert in Brooklyn, and the second Sex Mob album may feature string arrangements Bernstein has penned for his quartet, or the band plus organist John Medeski.
Bernstein's lofty hope is to create a listening experience that's musically, emotionally and spiritually transcendent. "I'm after psychedelic music," he says. "I want to make music that transforms people's lives and maybe their way of thinking. I want people to hear us and then go home and think about checking out someone else, maybe Louis Armstrong or Roy Eldridge. And then follow that path to somewhere else, like the Art Ensemble `of Chicago`. And so on, and so on."