- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

Sex Mob

Sexotica

Thirsty Ear

Steven Bernstein’s

Millennial Territory

Orchestra

MTO Volume 1

Sunnyside

Though Steven Bernstein is one of the most charismatic and eccentric artists to have emerged from the ferment of the downtown New York jazz scene in the 1990s, he’s still not a household name, even among jazz aficionados. Today marks the release date of two new recordings from two Bernstein-led outfits — a coincidence that ought to garner the trumpeter, composer and bandleader more ink than his boutique-label issues usually rate.

Mr. Berntein’s repertoire is a study in contradiction. While he specializes in developing jazz hooks for covers of rock songs, he plays the archaic slide trumpet — almost unheard of in contemporary jazz. Many of his younger fans are drawn from the loosey-goosey world of jam-band music, yet Mr. Bernstein is known for his tight, demanding orchestrations.

His most widely heard work probably is his arrangement of the soundtrack to the film “Get Shorty.” The soundtrack, essentially a reworking of the signature riff in James Brown’s “Can’t Stand It,” is a far cry from Mr. Bernstein’s most interesting work.

The quartet Sex Mob first attracted attention through a series of midnight gigs at the Lower East Side jazz club Tonic in 1998. Mr. Bernstein, along with sax player Briggan Krauss, drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr crafted wild and nearly unrecognizable jazz versions of classic rock and pop hits such as ABBA’s “Fernando,” the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and Nirvana’s “About a Boy.” More than a one-trick novelty act, Sex Mob infuses these songs with unexpected heart that charms with excellent musicianship and lavish, rollicking arrangements.

The Mob’s new album, “Sexotica,” is a tribute to the tiki music craze of the late 1950s, as exemplified by bandleader Martin Denny and marimba and vibraphone sensation Arthur Lyman.

The title is a riff on Mr. Denny’s 1957 chart-topping “Exotica.” “Sexotica” is more rhythmically driven than previous Sex Mob efforts, with songs anchored with powerful, persistent bass riffs and speckled with percussive melodies hammered out on the marimba, vibraphone and balaphone.

The album recalls Sex Mob’s 2003 thematic ode to John Barry, “Sex Mob Does Bond,” in that a fondness for the source material is essential to enjoyment of the reinterpretation. Here the exotic aural landscape is heightened with the use of studio effects, and at times Mr. Bernstein’s signature slide trumpet almost sounds out of place, like a wax cylinder jammed into a CD player.

Fans of the Sex Mob’s earlier efforts, and especially listeners unfamiliar with Mr. Bernstein’s oeuvre might have a better time with the debut recording of the nine-piece Millennial Territory Orchestra.

The arrangements on “MTO Volume 1” are a throwback to the jump bands of the 1920s and 1930s that spawned the likes of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. The approach is similar to the earliest Sex Mob recordings, but with the freedom offered by the larger band.

Mr. Bernstein submits traditional numbers such as “The Boy in the Boat” and covers of modern songs, including the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” (a Sex Mob favorite) and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” to the same method, with a sound that is genuine but never antiquated. The result is an exuberant and thrilling journey through the backwaters of American music.

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