After reveling in pre-Benny Goodman big band jazz with a cheery avant twist and unlikely pop references leading the Millennial Territory Orchestra, slide trumpet extraordinaire Steven Bernstein returns to his first major project after a seven year studio layoff. Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti, the first album by the fun lovin’ whack jazz warriors Sexmob since 2009’s Sexmob Meets Medeski: Live in Willisau, is also the first non-live record since Sexotica (2006). Nearly every Sexmob album has a theme and this one pays homage to the Nino Rota compositions that graced the dreamlike films of famed Italian director Federico Fellini.
Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti is a rare Sexmob record where the basic quartet isn’t supplemented by anyone else, but this isn’t their first foray into soundtrack music; Sexmob Does Bond (2001) celebrated the music of John Barry that accompanied James Bond films. And the band certainly doesn’t shy away from covers, as they found they can get away with playing heavily deconstructed tunes to audiences as long as the melodies are vivid and memorable. Covering Rota isn’t a new idea, by the way, Bernstein became aware of the composer through Hal Willner’s own tribute, originally released back in 1981, Amarcord (which featured young unknowns Bill Frisell and Wynton Marsalis), and individual songs have been covered for decades. But never discount what Bernstein’s Sexmob can do to other people’s music.
Bernstein originally devised Sexmob in the 90s as a vehicle for his feral slide trumpet, which he plays here along with a hybrid trumpet and an alto horn. The Cinema lineup of Bernstein, Briggan Krauss (alto sax, baritone sax), Tony Scherr (electric bass), Kenny Wollesen (drums, gongs, log drum, waterphone, vibraphone) are the same four who performed on their 1998 debut Din of Inequity, and it’s hard to imagine how they could pull off the stunts they attempt without that kind of familiarity amongst them.
The sequence begins, appropriately enough, with the same leadoff track on Willner’s Rota tribute, “Amacord.” While Jaki Byard spun a very luscious, elegant version of the song on the 1981 recording, Sexmob at times caress the tune and other times draw and quarter it, in their own way enhancing the song’s theatrical quality. Come to think of it, all the dramatic turns they insert in that song is probably much closer to how the song was originally conceived.
I can’t pretend I know all these Rota tunes that well, but Sexmob maxim of pulling apart songs as much as possible while still holding true to the fundamental harmonics of them is clearly being followed. Bernstein’s slide trumpet is full of character, he can make that thing sound like a trombone, a sax, a regular trumpet and even an electric guitar, such as on the punk rock feel of “Nadia Gray.” Krauss acts as his foil, adding of buckets abrasive skronk, or just blending in with Bernstein when they need to refer to the song’s theme. He can go off into the hinterlands of whack jazz with his husky baritone on “Paparozzo” and quickly pivot into a jazz swing within the same song.
Scherr’s bass riffs often gives a song a groove (see “La Strada”), and he’s also more than capable of handling defining the melody itself with completeness, as he proves at the beginning of “Volpina” and the entirety of “Celsomina.” Wollesen is called upon to devise beats of every type, from a festive second line that erupts in the middle of “Volpina” to the soft tribal beats that follow the thrash rock all within “The Grand Hotel.” I believe “Paparazzo” is about the only time he’s called upon to play a jazz cadence, and he ends that performance with a forceful drum solo.
You don’t have to get a charge out of Italian movies to get a charge out of Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti. The attitude, dramatics and sheer musicianship required to pull it off should be plenty enough reasons to have fun with this record the same way you can get your kicks from any Sexmob record.
Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti is due out March 19, by The Royal Potato Family.
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