Music News

Nobody Does It Better

As artists go, film composers are often chumps. They rarely pursue their own vision; instead, they're following some director's agenda, trying to match their music to edited pieces of celluloid they had no hand in creating. Blending in usually counts for more than standing out -- hardly a recipe for artistic glory.

However, truly great composers can expand a film's resonance while adding their own personal stamp. Who can think of Alfred Hitchcock without the modernistic, deeply psychological music of Bernard Herrmann? Where is Steven Spielberg without the richly articulated and densely orchestrated scores of John Williams? What would Sergio Leone's baroque Italian Westerns resemble minus the beautiful, wildly eccentric compositions of Ennio Morricone?

And where would James Bond be without John Barry, the composer who scored eleven of Bond's nineteen big-screen adventures? Dead and buried beneath the cult-films shelf, probably. The success of the early Bond films may rest largely with the impossibly cool performances of Sean Connery, but give Barry his props: His effortless scores -- lush, exciting, stylish -- epitomize Bond's appeal.

In 1962, a 28-year-old Barry was called in at the last minute to record a theme for Bond's film debut, Dr. No, after composer Monty Norman couldn't come up with a tune that satisfied the producers. Barry quickly pieced together an instant classic with slick guitar riffs, snazzy horns and crackling drums. While the flashy gadgets and souped-up sports cars issued by Q Branch saved Bond from countless oversized henchmen and megalomaniacal villains, it was the up-tempo, ballsy James Bond theme, one of the most recognizable tunes of the twentieth century, that truly made the superspy invincible -- able to outlast bad acting, corny one-liners, the smirking Roger Moore and forty years of a finicky pop culture.

In fact, almost all of Barry's Bond music -- especially for the five films he scored between 1963 and 1969 -- still sounds great. (The soundtrack to Goldfinger reached the top of the U.S. album charts in 1965.) The movies are chock-a-block with action and sex, and the scores are tough and dreamy. From its action cues to its theme songs, Barry's music is sleek and polished, sly, witty, cool. The film's exotic locations are woven into the scores with the skill of a Savile Row tailor: The lyrical Japanese accents of You Only Live Twice; the plush harps of the underwater Bahamian lagoons in Thunderball; the laid-back, exotic bongos in From Russia With Love, which follow Bond through the underbelly of Istanbul.

There has been no shortage of Bond cover songs over the years: The resurgence of the films in the '90s saw several electronic reinterpretations of Barry's famous themes. But no one has done it better, or at least with more gusto, than the New York-based Sex Mob. In its short history, the group has gleefully given the finger to rock's phobia about musicians who can actually play their instruments, as well as to the overarching seriousness of modern jazz. The Mob's style is manic and unpredictable. They players are equally at home riffing on Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Prince, Nirvana, the Stones, the Grateful Dead and James Brown.

It's a recipe for self-conscious, cooler-than-thou pretension, to be sure, but the Mob also appreciates the power of a good ass-shaking groove, and few things in music are less stuck up. The band's leader is 39-year-old Steven Bernstein. Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Bernstein took up the trumpet in the fourth grade because his father was a Louis Armstrong fan. (One of Armstrong's last recordings was the theme song to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the beautiful "We Have All the Time in the World.") When Bernstein moved to New York City in his late teens, he fell in with the avant-punk-funk scene, and since then has performed with artists as diverse as Tricky, John Zorn, Aretha Franklin, Mel Torme and Bootsy Collins. Given that alternative upbringing, it's no surprise that Bernstein plays the eccentric and little-used slide trumpet, which has the sliding valves of a trombone. "I wanted to see how far I could take this instrument," he says. "I wondered how it would work in all these different situations."

Sex Mob has given him the chance. The band came together, very undeliberately, in 1995, as a bunch of guys performing informal Thursday-night gigs at the Knitting Factory, one of New York's more infamous bastions of jazz fringe. Bernstein and his mates, saxophonist Briggan Krauss, drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr, rarely practiced. They simply played and, as Bernstein puts it, became a band in front of audiences. (On its current tour, Sex Mob is joined by keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood.)

Through word of mouth, Sex Mob quickly became one of the most talked-about jazz groups in town. The outfit's popularity grew when it moved to Tonic, a Lower East Side club, and started playing midnight shows every Friday. In 1998, the Mob released the first of two albums, Din of Inequity. The followup, Solid Slender, came out last year.