At New York-based Sex Mob's last San Francisco appearance at the Elbo Room, slide trumpeter and leader Steve Bernstein spent more time between songs dissing Branford Marsalis than he did introducing his own band's music. It was a shame, and for more reasons than just the fact that most of his jokes fell flat. As Sex Mob's raucous new album, Solid Sender, proves, the group doesn't have to position itself in opposition to any perceived "jazz orthodoxy" to sound relevant: Its music stands up just fine on its own.
The 19 tracks on Solid Sender tell you all you need to know about this downtown New York four-piece, whose regular lineup of Bernstein on slide trumpet, Briggan Kraus on saxophones, Tony Scherr on acoustic bass, and Kenny Wollenson on drums is augmented here by guests like DJ Logic, violinists Joan Wasser (from the Dambuilders) and Charlie Burnham, cellist Jane Scarpantoni, and others. Bernstein's originals, with titles like "Rear View," "The Grind," and "Not Boweevil," mix with unabashedly nontraditional covers of everyone from Nirvana ("About a Girl") to the Stones ("Ruby Tuesday"), Duke Ellington ("The Mooch"), and the Grateful Dead ("Ripple"). "The Grind," with its trip-hoppy backbeat and ominous-sounding cello backgrounds mixed with horn lines that sound lifted straight out of a New Orleans street party, or the cacophonous horn parts that mesh with Logic's turntable scratching on the title track all mix a healthy dose of mostly New Orleans-style jazz grounding with a refreshing need to push those boundaries beyond their normal jazz environment. It's evident in Sex Mob's fearless treatment of the cover tunes on Solid Sender too -- Steven Stills' "For What It's Worth" becomes a tranquil and plaintive trumpet meditation followed by an almost heavy metal-like dirge, and "Ruby Tuesday" morphs seamlessly from a gentle rubato opening to a dub breakdown.
That all of it is distinctively unclassifiable -- unless you want to call it "New Orleans funeral-march brass band meets free jazz funk backbeat (on acid)" -- is, judging from Bernstein's rambling tirades at the Elbo Room, the point. But that's also thankfully beside the point as well. Listeners won't have to inject themselves into the "What is jazz?" debate that divides Lincoln Center from the Knitting Factory in order to enjoy Solid Sender to the hilt.