A Few (More) Minutes With… Steven Bernstein

Steve Berrnstein (photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk)
Steven Bernstein

Interview and story by J Hunter
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk

First, let’s do a little housekeeping. Sex Mob – the hardcore alt-jazz quartet horn monster that Steven Bernstein formed almost 20 years ago – is now known as Sexmob. One compound word (which makes a heck of a nice hashtag), not two words Fox News hosts tend to employ as combustible devices. Not to say that this group isn’t combustible: All you have to do is go on YouTube and click on their versions of “Live and Let Die” and “You Only Live Twice” to see that this group blew “the box” to smithereens a long time ago.

The last time slide trumpeter Bernstein blew through Lake George’s Jazz at the Lake festival in 2012, he brought the mammoth Millennial Territory Orchestra, which mounted Bernstein’s equally sprawling tribute to former San Francisco deejay Sylvester Stewart (aka Sly Stone) and rode it right into the crowd. For all the drops of insanity mixed into MTO’s barn-burning Sunday afternoon set, the overall vibe was that of the kind of funked-up party Sly & the Family Stone were famous for. The music Bernstein and Sexmob will be bringing to Shepard Park for Jazz at the Lake this weekend could be considered “party music,” but while its creative inspiration is, in his way, just as flamboyant as Stone, his creations make flag-waving anthems like “Stand” and “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” seem utterly tame.

The music comes from Sexmob’s chaotic 2013 release Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: The Music of Nino Rota. Rota is the man who wrote all the music for all the films of Italian film icon Federico Fellini, whose works will never be confused with the Farrelly Brothers. We’re talking subjects and characters that range from the wild to the downright surrealistic. Not the sort of stuff Netflix or HBO pushes at us every second of every day – and yet, Fellini’s work has influenced everything from Woody Allen’s 1981 film “Stardust Memories” to the video for R.E.M.’s megahit “Everybody Hurts.” But none of those moments had the singular madness of Nino Rota’s scores, which come across at first blush as Dixieland jazz played by clowns on acid – but, when examined closer, are perfect musical representations of the emotional rollercoasters Fellini’s characters ride.

Bernstein and Sexmob take this music head-on with “Cinema,” matching Rota’s madness volt for volt and throwing in their own brand of “the crayzee” to add even more spice. This is dark, challenging stuff, and definitely not for the squeamish. Whatever happens, Sexmob is going to give Jazz at the Lake a hell of a wild ride. But two of the many cool things about JATL impresario Paul Pines are his unblinking fearlessness and his faith in his core audience: Pines will make headliners of groups that most major festivals would bury on some second stage at the back of the fairgrounds; unlike those bookers, Pines believes his audience doesn’t need to be spoon-fed its culture, can handle the rough waters beyond the mainstream, and will find the beauty and creativity he sees in the groundbreakers he brings to the shores of Lake George.

Recently, Bernstein – who was good enough to talk with me before MTO’s visit in 2012 – gave me a few more minutes to talk about his “other” band:

Q: Sexmob got its start at a pretty legendary club: The Knitting Factory, which was known for being a showcase of non-traditional jazz and other experimental music. The Knitting Factory has died and been re-born (in New York and other places), but what are your memories of the original club in Manhattan?

A: It was a clubhouse environment for a certain era of musicians, not at all concerned with definitions or boundaries in music and art. You could hear John Zorn or Sonny Sharrock, or a punk-based band… poetry or straight-ahead jazz. I saw an old calendar recently (from the very early years), and it was almost like looking at a calendar from Slug’s – a bygone era in NYC.

Q: The first time I saw MTO, you were at MASS MoCA playing original music for three Laurel & Hardy short features. Have you always been interested in the relationship between music and film?

A: I just saw a Godzilla movie on TV late at night, and listening to the score, I realized… “YES!”

Q: Let’s talk about “Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Fellini.” This is about as far away from Laurel & Hardy (and Sly Stone, for that matter) as you can get. How did this project come about?

A: They all seem connected to me, but I guess that’s why my music sounds this way. Hal Willner made a Fellini tribute record in 1980. It was very influential to me, and I had been talking for some years about doing a Sexmob version. The melodies are so strong, I felt that they would fit very well in our style. I would occasionally bring a Nino Rota chart to a gig and try it out, but for one of Euro tours, the promoter said he needed a new theme… so it was time to work up new arrangements, and Sexmob Plays Fellini was born!

Q: In many ways, Fellini was kind of a jazz filmmaker, in that he encouraged improvisation, and he liked to turn standard images on their heads. Is that something that attracts you to his work?

A: Actually, reading his autobiography was my main influence for the sound and structure of the CD. His thoughts on process and art were what I used as guideposts.

Q: Although “Cinema” features music from other parts of Fellini’s filmography, you keep coming back to three movies: “La Strada,” “La Dolce Vita” and “Amarcord.” What kept you coming back to those particular films? Was it the movies themselves, or did Rota do something there that he didn’t do anywhere else? 

A: It’s always the melodies that attract me… in ANY music. And by melodies, I mean melody, rhythm and harmony. 

Q: How influential were individual scenes in the films and music you chose? The Grand Hotel is a major focal point in “Amarcord,” and the piece “The Grand Hotel” reflects two very different scenes set at that place. Also, intrigue and guilt run side by side throughout “Juliet of the Spirits,” and “Il Teatrino della Suore” has both those qualities in spades.

A: I love how listeners are able to connect these interpretations to scenes/films they love. I didn’t refer to any particular scenes or films consciously; I just let the music take me where it wanted, but keeping the films in mind as a guide.

Q: How much of the music on “Cinema” is Nino Rota, and how much of it is Sexmob? For instance, “Volpina” starts out in this incredibly dark space, and then suddenly you’re smack dab in the middle of a Second Line groove straight out of New Orleans. Plus there’s parts of “Paparazzo” that seem to channel Louis Armstrong’s take on “Mack the Knife.”

A: Everything is Sexmob, but all the melodies are Nino Rota (and Fellini’s inspiration is behind it all). By the way, I’m in New Orleans right now. And “Paparazzo” – that’s just the way the melody goes, but when I play it (as opposed to an Italian studio musician), that’s how it ends up sounding. I didn’t change a thing.

Q: What’s the reaction been to this project? Although Fellini is a cinematic deity in Europe, he’s not well known here in the United States. Do you have to break down who he was and what these films were for audiences?

A: The reaction is always powerful to Sexmob. We’ve been together almost 20 years now, and know how to communicate with each other, and more importantly, the audience. I don’t talk about the films per se, I let the music speak for itself. But that doesn’t mean the audience won’t hear me mangle some key Italian tourist phrases “ho avuto un atacco cardiaco!”

The annual Jazz at the Lake festival returns to Shepard Park in Lake George on Saturday & Sunday (September 13 & 14). Steven Bernstein & Sexmob are slated to unleash their tribute to the music of Nino Rota at 4:30pm Saturday. Bernstein will also kick off the festival on Sunday as a member of Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee, led by the Medeski Martin & Wood drummer. Admission to the festival is FREE. GO HERE for a complete schedule of bands and performance times…

A Few Minutes With… Steven Bernstein of the Millennial Territory Orchestra
LIVE: Lake George Jazz Weekend @ Shepard Park, 9/16/12 (Day Two)
LIVE: Sex Mob @ Club Helsinki, 10/7/11

Comments are closed.