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Published: 2002/03/04
by Jesse Jarnow

Sex Mob, Knitting Factory, NYC- 2/28
Millennial Territory Orchestra, Tonic, NYC- 3/1

NYC ROLL-TOP: Steve Bernstein Does Music

There's something way cool about the way Steven Bernstein works. I really
enjoy watching him before gigs, scuttling about onstage, passing out charts
to the musicians, bantering with anybody in ear shot, and just keeping
himself in constant motion. By the time he picks up his trumpet, it really
just seems like a continuation of every action he's taken onstage so far,
it's very natural — and it sure sounds like that, too. And well it should;
Bernstein is a lifelong musician cut from the New Orleans jazz ethic: music
is work, work is play, play is life. So he shuffles up onstage at Tonic or
the Knitting Factory or any number of other downtown clubs and just does
what he does — humanly, unpretentiously, and musically. This is just what
he did over two nights with two bands last week — Sex Mob at the Knit on
Thursday the 28th, and the Millennial Territory Orchestra at Tonic for the
coveted midnight set on Friday the 1st.

Making up a gig he had to pull out of in September, John Medeski joined Sex
Mob at the Knitting Factory for a belated celebration of the release of the
Sex Mob Does Bond disc, released last year on Ropeadope Records. It
was clear, musically, that Medeski hadn't rehearsed the material. That's
fine. He probably didn't rehearse before the sessions for the record either.
In fact, that's exactly the point: if a musician can read music fluently,
then it automatically confers a basic level of understanding. Hell, it seems
a simple tenet of a certain kind of music — it's just an aesthetic that I
don't encounter too often.

Bernstein's music isn't free in the proper sense of the word, though it
certainly contains elements of that. In fact, both nights began with short
chaotic preludes. These things, too, seem of the aesthetic. One of my
favorite parts of an orchestral performance – musically and socially – is
when the musicians stroll onto stage and tune up. It makes for a great
cacophony, but it's also a social ritual. Musically, the preludes were akin
to the musicians saying "hello" to each other, stretching their voices
slightly by reaching for the extremes. Both nights, over and under the din,
Bernstein shouted out a count-off and the bands jumped into the first charts
of the respective evenings.

It helps if the music is cool, too. Bernstein's stuff is pretty accessible,
and that's great. The Knit show was comprised mainly of Mob arrangements of
James Bond theme tunes. Even if the specifics of the John Barry
scores weren't familiar to most (they sure as hell aren't to me), the style
was. Each one yielded its own nooks: a massive military style beat
(delivered, of course, with a vastly psychotic pinache by Kenny Wollesen), a
surprisingly melancholy melody (Bernstein on the slide trumpet), or a subtly
ambient turn of mood (a change of attack by Medeski). The band slid in and
out of improvisations, including a dashing marimba/organ duet by Wollesen
and Medeski. Good shit. It was a great show.

Charges that the Mob can be faulted for staying too close to the original
Barry charts are easily dismissed when one thinks about the fact that,
simply, this is something that nobody has really done before. All of Barry's
records are out there, but rarely is the work considered as a whole. Maybe
even moreso than author Ian Fleming, Barry had the chance to develop Bond as
a character, to some degree. (I say all this knowing very little of the
specifics of the situation, incidentally.) Still: Barry was able to
establish a kind of composition and refine it, letting types of melodies and
themes surface and develop throughout the works.

The next night, at the Millennial Territory Orchestra gig at Tonic, the
focus was – on the surface – quite different. The MTO was an austere
big-band: a few saxes, electric guitar, upright bass, trombone, Bernstein on
trumpet, and Charlie Burnam on hot jazz-style violin. A website description
promised that the band would be working its way through a setlist of tunes
from so-called "territory bands" from the '30s and '40s. Indeed, the evening
start out that way, but soon veered into… well, whatever happened: chaos,
a little bit of groove, dancin' music, and a lot of improvisation.

Sex Mob know each other pretty well, musically speaking. The MTO is a newer – not to mention, bigger – ensemble and require more conducting from the
bandleader. Bernstein is a very physical bandleader, and it is a pleasure to
watch the music move through him as he pilots the unit, tracing the shapes
of the sounds to come with his hands. The material felt a little less
familiar on Friday and, for me, tended to blend together a little bit more.
It felt a little less distinctly separated.

Still, there were moments. Trombonist Josh Roseman, who'd played in the 10
o'clock slot at Tonic, joined the band for a few numbers, including a
two-trombone blow-off on "Ripple" (of all songs). The song soon
disintegrated into a sort of generic improvisation — one with a high common
denominator, mind you, but still kind of faceless in the wake of some of the
other tunes the band played. Nonetheless, it was the sound of a dozen or so
musicians who were just pleased as punch to be on the bandstand playing the
music before them: truly enjoyable work.

There is nothing rebellious about what Bernstein does, at least not in the
dangerous way that some music seems to strives to be — but that doesn't
mean it is not fundamentally challenging. To me, after the 1960s, the phrase
"counter-culture" never meant something that went out and protested or tried
to overthrow the government or anything. Rather, it was just something that
quietly occupied the same sphere as the dominant one. Something like that.
Bernstein's modus operandi simply seems to continue doing what
musicians have done for at least a century: gig, arrange new tunes, and play
music that somehow responds to the needs of the audience. No walls are
necessarily being hammered at. But floors are sure being stomped on and,
later perhaps, sheets will be sullied.

Jesse Jarnow lives in Brooklyn, and
summers in Slumberland.

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