Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti, the new album from New York City’s Sex Mob, is a tribute to the classic films of Italian auteur Federico Fellini—and, by extension, to the soundtracks composed by his close collaborator, Nino Rota. But it also pays homage to a little-known gem of the tribute genre: producer Hal Willner’s Amarcord Nino Rota, a 1981 classic that’s still revered by all who heard it back then.
“Obviously, seeing the films was my first exposure,” says Sex Mob bandleader and slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein, reached at home in the City That Never Sleeps. “I grew up in Berkeley, and we always had art-movie houses, so we’d go see Fellini films. It’s not like I was a huge Fellini fan, but it was just part of being a high-school kid.
“But then what happened, I guess, is I was 19 years old and I went to my friend’s house, and he said, ‘Check out this record!’ It was Hal Willner’s Nino Rota record, and I was like, ‘Wow! Look who’s on it!’ And you look at this record and it’s Carla Bley, Steve Lacy, Jaki Byard. It’s Bill Frisell’s first recording. It’s Wynton Marsalis’s first recording. And then Blondie’s on it. Not the full band, but Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. And both of us were just getting our minds blown. We’re like, ‘Wow! What is this? Who is this guy?’
“And of course the music was super memorable, and the very idea was just so unbelievable and audacious and cool,” Bernstein adds. “It was what we’d all been waiting for.”
Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti isn’t quite as singular, if only because Willner’s pioneering effort triggered a slew of Rota covers. But “audacious and cool” is also an apt description of the Sex Mob style. The band is perhaps the fullest-sounding acoustic quartet going, and while Bernstein takes credit for that on the record—“I wanted to mix it really big,” he stresses—the real key to his band’s success is its blend of personalities.
Bernstein, saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr, and drummer Kenny Wollesen are all A-list musicians, each with an identifiable style and a powerful sound. It’s their collective chemistry, though, that makes Sex Mob more than just the sum of its impressive parts.
“The whole thing about the music we make—and if you want to call it jazz music, that’s totally okay with me—is that it comes from this tradition, you know,” Bernstein explains. “The first real great one was Louis Armstrong, and then Duke Ellington, and you had Jelly Roll Morton, and what they were doing was basically taking all this music that had kind of been around Europe, these harmonies and melodies, and then adding their personalities and creating something bigger. That’s what the real thing with jazz is. That’s why people love Lester Young, or why people love Bill Frisell, or people love John Coltrane, or people love Albert Ayler: it’s not so much the notes they play, it’s how they come out. It’s the personality of the person that enchants the audience.”
Bernstein is admittedly frustrated that his quartet doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves among the improv cognoscenti. Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti, however, serves notice that Sex Mob can deliver deep, moody music along with the very best in party jazz.