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.

The band had already been playing a couple of Bond tunes: "Goldfinger"; "Bond With Bongos," a version of the Bond theme heard in From Russia With Love; and a "total porno version" of "Live and Let Die," without the "stupid reggae bridge that sounds like it was sliced in by George Martin," Bernstein says, ribbing the composer and ex-Beatles producer. And Bernstein was already dabbling in film composition himself, having landed jobs arranging music for Robert Altman's jazz opus Kansas City, as well as the John Travolta vehicle Get Shorty. So when the Knitting Factory sponsored a film-music fest three years ago and asked Sex Mob to participate, Bernstein decided to expand the group's repertoire of Bond hits.

"When we did this Bond thing, the whole bar would flip out," Bernstein says. "It was like an epiphany for me. If you play something people know, if you give them something to hold on to, you can draw in anybody. What particular accent you speak in doesn't matter if they understand the language."

Bernstein bought every Bond soundtrack on vinyl and just listened and listened. Eventually he picked out his twenty favorite "cues" from all the soundtracks, and then he listened some more, whittling those down until he had about a dozen selections. He wrote out the parts and played with them a bit. The result is Sex Mob Does Bond, the band's third album, due in stores this month. The album was conceived as a soundtrack to a Bond film that doesn't exist, bookended by an original tune Bernstein wrote in the Barry mold, "Dr. Yes," a campy-cool ditty that wouldn't sound out of place in an Austin Powers movie.

For a band predisposed to atomizing famous tunes until they're unrecognizable, Sex Mob plays the Bond music pretty close to Barry's original compositions: Melodies, details and interior voicings heard on the soundtracks come out largely the same here. It's in the middle of the tunes that Sex Mob goes to work, throwing in gutty solos that flow in and out of grooves that Bernstein dubs the "porno beats." He coined the phrase listening to a certain kind of rhythm Wollesen was laying down on drums. It sounded nasty and stinky, grainy, "attractive and repulsive" at the same time. In other words, a perfect fit for Bond.

"All the music I love is very rhythmic," Bernstein explains, and most of it comes from the same place: "In a sense, all the music I like came from New Orleans marching bands. Courtney Love and Wynton Marsalis all comes from the same place."

The best Bond cuts, he says, "feel adventurous. You don't know what's going to happen next, but when it does, you're like, 'Yeah...' They were also the most visual." By sheer chance, says Bernstein, most of the tunes for the album are culled from the two best Bond films, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- which also feature Barry's best work for the series. For the most part, the cuts from Goldfinger work best in Sex Mob's irreverent translation. One of the tracks, "Oddjob's Pressing Engagement" follows the music in the film so exactly that it's easy to imagine the cinematic action -- the Korean henchman with the razor-tipped bowler killing a man and then crushing him in a car.

The Mob switches gears from free-jazz crazy to understated elegance worthy of a pinstriped suit to funky cinematic menace (who have thought there was such a thing?). The band wraps up with a little tongue-in-cheek ending -- and it all works. The track feels kaleidoscopically cool.

Barry's music for Majesty's, on the other hand, though full of chic flutes and hip organs and synthesizers, is somehow more sweeping and upright, more British. As such, the tracks are a little harder to reinvent, and Sex Mob's versions, creative as they are, don't sound any cooler than the originals. The already haunting music that originally accompanied the film's opening sequence (Bond's dawn rescue of his future wife, Tracy, as she tries to drown herself) is well rendered by the Mob as a trippy post-coital haze. But Sex Mob's near-note-for-note translation of that cue's more jagged and staccato passages feels, well, kooky.

Still, Sex Mob can take a cue like Majesty's "Over and Out" -- with its very unjazzy, droning melody -- and bust it open, thanks to John Medeski's fierce keyboard solo and some cosmic reverb. Throughout, Medeski's fat keyboards hold the tunes together. Bassist Scherr and drummer Wollesen also ground the high-flying antics of Bernstein's slide trumpet and Krauss's alto-sax work.

The best tracks on the album come from music from other films. They improve on Barry's somewhat ponderous action cue "007," which recurs through several movies, by playing it with boisterous brio straight from a New Orleans street parade. The band also shines on covers of two theme songs, "You Only Live Twice" and "Nobody Does It Better," composed by Marvin Hamlisch for 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me. The band drops its manic showmanship for a more relaxed, resonant approach. The former features Bernstein's slide trumpet in full glory -- sly and super-sexy -- while Krauss's saxophone is at turns sweet and, with a growl, insistent. The two create a song that is lusty and sad at the same time. The Sex Mob Soul Choir comes in to end the tune on a rousing, almost-Brazilian bent. "Nobody Does It Better," meanwhile, simply smolders like a slow, bluesy gospel tune, dripping with erotic oomph.

Sometimes it sounds like the Mob is a bunch of madmen banging away on their instruments. But something of that Barry essence squeezes through. If listening to Sex Mob Does Bond isn't enough to make you feel like you actually are Bond (like the best of Barry's themes do), then the band captures what one imagines as the flushed and woozy feeling of getting hammered with 007 in a sleazy bar in, say, Bangkok, as he recounts his favorite world-saving exploits.

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T.R. Witcher