Married to the Mob

Steven Bernstein and Sex Mob do it all for the peeps

click to enlarge GOODBYE RUBY TUESDAY: Sex Mob made its - name by co-opting songs like the Stones' 'Ruby - Tuesday," but the band's new album is mostly - originals. - MIKE SCREIBER
GOODBYE RUBY TUESDAY: Sex Mob made its name by co-opting songs like the Stones' 'Ruby Tuesday," but the band's new album is mostly originals.

It's pushing noon when Steven Bernstein croaks a hello over the phone. Last night had been a big to-do. The slide trumpeter, arranger, composer and leader of Sex Mob played the first segment of a high-profile rainforest benefit at Carnegie Hall organized by Sting's wife, Trudy Styler. Bernstein wrote the arrangement for Elton John's version of the "Woody Woodpecker" theme, as well as played in the big band.

It's all in a hectic day's work for the 42-year-old, who built his rep as a denizen of New York's avant-garde "downtown" scene, and has been steadily expanding his horizons. The following day, Friday, calls for mixing his new Diaspora Hollywood album, a slate of Jewish songs performed in West Coast jazz style to be released on John Zorn's Tzadik label. The next evening is a reunion gig with his former band Spanish Fly. Monday nights are reserved for his critically lauded Millennial Territory Orchestra at the club Jazz Standard.

Over the last couple of months, Bernstein wrote six horn arrangements and played on guitarist Bill Frisell's forthcoming album, produced and played on a new project by the trendy L.A. band Shivaree, performed on a Medeski Martin & Wood session, and wrote music for a Visa commercial featuring George Steinbrenner and Derek Jeter.

"The thing about a musician's life is, it's up and down," Bernstein says matter-of-factly. "Right now, it's up."

If all this were not enough, Bernstein was set to head out with Sex Mob on a short Southern tour the following Wednesday. "Quite honestly, I'd make more money if I stayed home," he says. "But the real gift of being a musician is getting in front of people and playing for them."

And that doesn't mean strictly in the Northeast, as is often the case with New York's hippest forward-thinking musicians. While many of their peers seem stuck in the rarified air of Manhattan, Sex Mob can take its music to the hinterlands because, well, the quartet knows how to stir up a party. Featuring alto saxophonist Briggan Krauss, acoustic bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen (replaced on this tour by Calvin Weston, who's played with Ornette Coleman, James Blood Ulmer, the Lounge Lizards and others) and Bernstein's slurry slide trumpet, the Mob plays greasy, funky, gutbucket music that bridges the gap between storied jazz tradition and no-holds-barred futurism. The band made their bones by taking songs like the Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," Prince's "Sign O' the Times" and the James Bond theme and running them through their brawny instrumental mill.

The upcoming Tampa Bay stops, their fourth or fifth time through, will find Sex Mob mixing in originals. The quartet's latest CD, Dime Grind Palace (Rope-a-Dope), was nearly all written by Bernstein. "I had done basically five CDs of covers," he explains. "It was time to write for the band."

Bernstein characterizes that process as "Easy. For about a month before recording, I wrote music every day and every night, in pencil in a notebook. Basically, when the notebook was filled, I went back and saw what I had and started refining the stuff. The concept of the record was to capture a moment in time. Records used to be done that way. Now they're projects. I wanted to get back to the concept of documenting a moment of my life in music."

Fans of Sex Mob's daring, often humorous covers will likely warm easily to the original material. The band maintains its sleazy sonic palette, and delivers the same sort of sludgy funk, raggedy ensemble work, skronky solos and helter-skelter eclecticism — this time augmented by an array of guest musicians who include underground trombone king Roswell Rudd and slide guitar wizard Dave Tronzo.

Bernstein is itching to get to Florida, where several towns, including Tampa, have rolled out the welcome mat. The trumpeter has a particularly fond memory of playing the now-defunct Atomic Age Café in Ybor City. Around 2 a.m., he and his mates took the music out onto Seventh Avenue, the crowd rallying around. Sex Mob had to drive to the Carolinas in a few hours, but Bernstein wouldn't have chosen to be anywhere else. He was, after all, playing for the people.

Contact Senior Writer Eric Snider at 813-248-8888, ext. 114, or [email protected].


6-7 p.m. — COLD JOON/DUNDU DOLE Warming up El Pasaje will be this dizzying Bay area cultural melange that combines Afro groove, pop hooks and pure celebration. The West African dance and drum group Dundu Dole, with their colorful costumes and exotic moves, will up the ante. —ERIC SNIDER

7:20-8:30 p.m. — THE CLUMSY LOVERS Americana and jam-scene fans alike are steadily warming to this rising British Columbia combo. The band ably mixes rootsy Appalachian bluegrass with a conspicuous Celtic influence, and delivers it with hooks and raw insurgent-country energy. —SCOTT HARRELL

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