Sexmob and John Medeski at Jazz Standard, March 9th, 2018by Martin Longley
Itching for action, Sexmob swelled up an introductory theme, doing battle with the Jazz Standard’s disembodied announcer, bandleader Steven Bernstein competitively laying down his own alternative house rules. Not that there were many such guidelines for the second night of what amounted to the Sexmob quartet’s debut on the “legitimate” New York City jazz club stage. Trumpeter Bernstein was joined by the ultra-steady line-up of Briggan Krauss (alto saxophone), Tony Scherr (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums). The night before, that core foursome were on hand, but for this Friday showing, they inducted old friend John Medeski on the Hammond B3 organ.
After twenty-two years of togetherness, Sexmob has finally made it into the mainstream, lending their music another level of oddness, as we heard it in this fresh surround. Within this context, the tunes and delivery sounded even more unusual, as we’re not so used to hearing such adventuring in clubland, even though the Standard probably books more new-fangled outfits than any of its competitors.
“We’re gonna go pure Sexmob, cuz it’s Friday night,” said Bernstein, exuding the juices of satire, which lubricated rather than impeded the groove. He might be a japer, but Sexmob succeeded with every move, whether arranged, improvised, or sounding like it was in-the-moment, even if it might also have been an act of premeditated anarchy. The opening sounds were reminiscent of atmospherics from a 1950s science fiction flick, as Medeski billowed electronically enhanced whorls, and the Mob made periodic swellings, with fibrillating alto darting through the slinking ooze. Bernstein also had an electronic effect on his slide trumpet, as the Mob unveiled their creeping, diseased incarnation of early Duke Ellington, Medeski’s organ shivering, Wollesen’s stick-work twitchy as he issued sudden clusters of rhythm.
On a new song, “The JS Theme” (unless the title is another one of Bernstein’s jokes), he accidentally pulled out his slide tubing, trying to go too far in his pursuance of the extreme note. There were masses of detail from all four players, as the tune appeared in malleable and highly decorated form. It sounded like Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times,” eventually. Medeski soloed while the horns stretched out tonal bedsheets. Afterwards, Bernstein got excited about this being the first time that the band had a stash of hand-towels, and that Krauss now had such a wonderful choice of alto mutes. Normally, he would carry his own trusty, soiled towel in his pocket, to bunch up and stuff in his bell.
Bernstein shouted out to the audience, welcoming out-of-towners, telling them that “in New York, we have the Duane Read, the Starbucks, the CVS,” and his vision of an Empire State Building being built atop every one of the latter. “We have Google here,” he proudly announced. Bernstein made a yowling yodel with his horn, immediately emulated by Krauss. Scherr and Wollesen worked together with a familiar tightness, bonding their elastic grooves.
The Sexmob of old were prodigious producers of cover versions from non-jazz sources, heralding the approach later adopted by The Bad Plus—next came John Barry’s “Battle At Piz Gloria,” a James Bond movie cue, opening with a drum rumble and a trumpet fanfare before it began to roll a variation on 007’s familiar theme.
There was humor in every sly note, imbued with twinkling mischief, but the Sexmob posture is far removed from novelty, their readings gripping with serious force. Freedom sounds knitted together with traditional New Orleans jazz, but we always knew that the roots of Albert Ayler lay in funeral parading. Medeski frilled the trad with 1960s organ groove, swirling around a strange blend, engaging in a duo with Wollesen. Bernstein returned with mute askew, making a buzzing rasp, as Krauss produced a purer tone. It turned out that they’d moved into “As Tears Go By” (the Rolling Stones). Afterwards, Bernstein offered Sexmob’s new album, Cultural Capital, for sale at the bar, although it’s not so new, as it’s had an “un-Google-able” existence, as he describes it, solely available at gigs for the last year. Bernstein’s strategy was to maintain zero online profile, and to make his audience complicit in this stance. He pretty much succeeded, and now there’s finally quite a significant, coordinated publicity drive for the “actual” release on April 14th.
Two days later, I caught the fourth of Bernstein’s nights at the Standard, this time leading his Millennial Territory Orchestra, whose repertoire spanned Charles Mingus to the Grateful Dead, the latter’s medley commingling 1970s funk and 1920s trotting. Bernstein unveiled a new arrangement of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” topped with a throaty baritone saxophone solo from Erik Lawrence, although his reed colleagues Doug Wieselman and Peter Apfelbaum also contributed some of the set’s most impressive solos, particularly the latter’s vocally endowed surprises in phrasing, as Mingus piece grew towards a slugging sway.
MARTIN LONGLEY writes for The Wire, Downbeat, Jazzwise, Songlines, and the All About Jazz website.