Slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein, a figure in New York’s Downtown avant-jazz scene who’s recorded several records for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, found he needed to head up to Hudson to play a Sex Mob show on his birthday. If Club Helsinki turns into an out-of-town outlet for hipster jazz, so be it—it was a treat to catch the Knitting Factory-spawned group here, along with guests John Medeski (the ubiquitous keyboard wizard who never met a one-off gig he didn’t rock) and trombonist Roswell Rudd, who earned his stripes playing alongside Archie Shepp in the ‘60s.
The band also included regular Sex Mob members Tony Scherr on bass and Briggan Krauss on sax, plus guest drummer Ben Perowsky. Bernstein conducted on-the-fly onstage, suggesting Rudd lay out on tunes he didn’t know (the quick-learning veteran disregarded the advice) and frequently gesturing to Medeski to come on stronger. There were occasional missed cues, but any lack of precision was made up for in raw energy.
Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” a frequent cover choice of the band, emerged as a stuttering, spasmodic pleasure. Perhaps as a side effect of some in-the-moment instruction, the band found itself repeating the opening melodic line over and over, each time coming to a full stop and seeing Perowsky emerge with tidy but gnarly solos. Finally, Bernstein ambled downstage and played the song’s first verse with an understated, lyric beauty—only to have the rest of the band explode loudly into multicolored accompaniment at the end of his statement, per his usual arrangement of the tune. Krauss took the second (instrumental) verse, and Scherr the third. The effect was of taking the song apart by its hinges and rebuilding (rather than disfiguring) it.
A highlight was actually “Happy Birthday,” dedicated to Bernstein’s wife. Rather than a goofy toss-off, the tune propelled some deliciously outré jamming. It opened with a bass solo, and Bernstein calling for “that New York street beat” from Perowsky. This was one of a few moments this night that felt a bit like Medeski’s main gig (Medeski, Martin and Wood) but gave way to a muted Rudd solo and some group improvisation that culminated in a woozy, New Orleans-evoking restatement of the theme.
Also notable was “Slide Serenade” from Sex Mob’s 2003 album Dime Grind Palace, announced as a debut live performance. The tune opened with bass notes from Medeski on organ while Scherr took an extended, thoughtful solo. The piece had the feel of a suite, with one section reaching its peak as all three horn players blew lead lines around each other while Perowsky swung diligently and Medeski laid down a sweetly melodic chord progression. The performance had the feel of a tour de force triumph that is only hinted at on the perfectly fine studio version.
If anything, Medeski (who did not bring along his full complement of keyboards) was not the octopussian monster he can sometimes be, but he showed his typical acumen for adaptation, and his experience as a longtime Sex Mob collaborator showed in his easy rapport with Bernstein.
The night was unfortunately soured by an ill-placed joke from the bandleader that drew disgusted catcalls. As long as the focus was on the music, however, this birthday party blew away the one I had at a mini-golf place that one time.