Jazz Orgy

Walk into any jazz show these days and you're likely to find a crowd of older men sipping Scotch and studiously listening to a horn player's arcane solo. Then step into a gig by the avant-jazz group Sex Mob and it's a different story: You'll find young people, particularly women, grooving to the band.

"Christian McBride came up to me and said, 'Man, Steven, I gotta give it to you man, you were the first guy since Miles Davis to get girls to come to a jazz gig,'" says Steven Bernstein, leader of Sex Mob, the New York quartet that's friendly to audiences of all persuasions, jazz and nonjazz, male and female, old and young. He says that was the greatest compliment he has ever received, especially since it came from McBride, one of the hottest jazz bassists in the business. But the comment should not be a surprise to fans who have flocked to Sex Mob's gigs for years, first at the popular Knitting Factory in the late Nineties and later at Tonic, to hear the band's uniquely wacky approach to jazz.

Sex Mob's style veers from loose and swinging Dixieland funk to straight-ahead bebop and wild free jazz deconstructions. It's not just its loopy style of playing that keeps crowds happy, but the modern pop tunes that dominate its repertoire, including Prince's "Sign of the Times," Nirvana's "About a Girl," and even "Macarena." Then there's the 2001 album, Sex Mob Does Bond, with songs taken from John Barry's memorable scores of James Bond films.

"There's a whole myth that avant-garde music destroyed jazz. But in the Sixties, avant-garde music was really popular," says the loquacious Bernstein, who proves his point by comparing the sax solos of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders to Sam Andrew and James Gurley's guitar work in Janis Joplin's band Big Brother and the Holding Company. "The audience of Coltrane gigs and Albert Ayler gigs were all young people. There weren't old people at those gigs. Those guys were cult heroes."

It all started as a happy accident. Bernstein formed Sex Mob in 1995 with the idea of working out his chops on the slide trumpet, an instrument that's somewhere between a trombone and trumpet and is rarely heard in a popular context because of its novelty and difficulty. The band got a residency at the Knitting Factory for $100 per night, and initially stuck to Bernstein's original compositions.

At about the same time, Bernstein was getting heavy into film music. One day he came across Barry's James Bond tune, "Bon with Bongos," which struck him as especially cool and mysterious. On a whim, he wrote up a chart for the band, and they played it during that night's gig.

"The whole place went insane. And it's not like we really altered the way we were playing, we were still playing really avant-garde and kind of wild," raves Bernstein. "It's kind of like a light went off in my head: 'Wait, I get it.' If you play something people know, it doesn't matter what style of music you're playing. It gives them something to hold on to.

"That was part of the beginning of that whole journey of, like, 'Well, why don't I just take whatever song's floating around in my head at the moment, write a chart on it, and see if we can make it work,'" Bernstein continues. The only stipulation for choosing their songs, he adds, is that it has to have a strong enough melody to withstand constant experimentation.

Sex Mob is anything but shoegazing jazz played by philosopher-musicians. The group -- Bernstein, Briggan Krauss on sax, Kenny Wollesen on drums, and Tony Scherr on bass -- has the utmost reverence for the jazz masters who came before, but it's not above turning a Duke Ellington tune on its head while segueing into an Abba sendup. It's dedicated to showmanship, with Bernstein's Cab Calloway-like enthusiasm and scatological swing leading the charge. While improvisation is all about spontaneity, Sex Mob takes it to the extreme.

Bernstein says the band never works from a set list and has only held one formal rehearsal in its nine-year history. "When you do stuff in front of an audience, it's the audience that forces the way the song goes, not the musician," he reasons. "You kind of feel the energy of the audience and that creates the arrangements. You actually go, 'Wow, this is when the next section actually needs to happen,' because you can feel the audience wanting for that next part to come in.

"That's why I tell people, 'You're here to hear mistakes. If you want something that's been plotted out, and committed to death, turn on your TV,'" he adds. "Life is wild and sloppy and unexpected, and that's what I want my shows to be like."