Skip to main content

Jazz Trumpeter Steven Bernstein

Jazz trumpeter Steven Bernstein. With his quartet, Sex Mob, hes just released a new CD which pays homage to the music of James Bond films. Its called Sex Mob Does Bond (ropeadope records) and is the sextets third album. Bernstein also heads two other groups: Diaspora Soul which specializes in performing versions of ancient Jewish melodies, and Millennial Territory Orchestra with which he explores jazz from the 1920s and 1930s.

27:02

Other segments from the episode on November 21, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 21, 2001: Interview with Ken Wells; Interview with Steven Bernstein.

Transcript

DATE November 21, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Author Ken Wells discusses growing up in Louisiana's
bayou country
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This Thanksgiving, many Americans will be returning to their hometowns for
family reunions. We're going to talk with Ken Wells about the place where he
grew up, the Louisiana bayou. As a senior writer and features editor for Page
One of The Wall Street Journal, Ken Wells collects stories about interesting
and unusual people. His own story, growing up on the bayou surrounded by more
snakes and alligators than neighbors, is the basis of his two novels. His
first novel, "Meely LaBauve," is about a 15-year-old living on the bayou with
his father, an alligator hunter who drinks a lot, often leaving Meely to fend
for himself.

The kid who bullies Meely, Junior Guidry, is the main character in Ken Wells'
new novel, "Junior's Leg." Set 12 years later, Junior is now a drunk, broke
ex-oil rig worker with a wooden leg. He lost his leg in an accident boarding
a rig in the shark-infested Gulf. Here's a reading in which Junior tells that
story. I'll let Ken Wells introduce it.

Mr. KEN WELLS (Author): This picks up with Junior basically being hung over,
as Junior often is, and he's going off on his offshore ship, where they work 7
to 7. It's pitch and rough out there. The Gulf is a big mess and, of course,
he's going to work with his archenemy, a guy named Armantaugh(ph), that he
hates and who hates him. And, of course, Armantaugh has just basically called
him a sissy if he doesn't want to get up on that rig. And, of course, Junior,
being Junior, would never abide that. So he's going up one way or the other.

(Reading) `I slam into the ladder, and I know I busted my left wrist good, but
I grab onto a rung with my right hand. I'm on the damn thing, even if it
weren't purty. I steady myself and reach up for the next rung. I don't even
see the boat pitching my way on a big swell. I've got my right leg up on the
next rung, but the crew boat pitches forward and bashes it into the ladder,
and there's a sound like the devil's song on a tin roof. The bow catches my
leg and I hear every damn bone crack. I know my knee's been crushed, like a
bull redfish crushes a blue crab before it swallows it whole.

`The crew boat pitches down and rises up again, and I think the monster's just
going to wipe me off the ladder like a mosquito slapped off the wall. But it
misses me the second time and scrapes up against a finger of the rig, and I'm
hanging there by one arm like a baboon, and some bastard is yelling. The boat
moors and finally backs away. A cloud of diesel comes blowing in my face.
It's a damn good thing I'm as strong as I am.

`I'm hanging on and I'm looking down at the water. I see something floating
down there. The Gulf is rough and gray, rough and gray as the sky, and then
it's gray and red. There's a fire hose spraying red, and then I goddamn do
know what I see down there. It's my leg.'

GROSS: Why did you want to start a novel with a grisly accident like this?

Mr. WELLS: Well, first of all, grisly accidents like this happen down in the
oil patch in Louisiana. You know, danger is a fact of life. Those jobs are
really well-paid, and they're often very sought after, but, you know, things
like this unfortunately do happen. I also--you know, "Junior" obviously is a
follow-up novel to my earlier novel about, you know, Meely, the kid that
Junior bullied. And so, you know, this is 12 years later. And in a way,
Junior is getting his come-uppance, you know, he's been a bad guy all of his
life and he's been a bully all of his life, and now he's being brought down a
notch or two.

GROSS: Yeah. See, you took a character who was the bad guy from your first
novel, the kid who bullied the main character, and you made this bully the
main character of your second novel. Did you have to start seeing him in a
more sympathetic light in order to frame a whole book around him?

Mr. WELLS: Well, the idea all along was to try to save Junior from his sorry
self, you know, and I think the whole notion of redemption runs through this
book. And I just thought it would be interesting to try to take the bad guy
and make something of him. Some of this is mildly autobiographical, too, you
know. I cut my teeth as a cub reporter on a little paper down in Louisiana at
around the time that Junior would have come of age. And every kid in high
school, every boy in high school that I knew when I graduated in 1966 who
wasn't going to college was going to work the oil patch. And it was like
going off to the mines. You know, everyone did it, everyone knew it was
dangerous, dirty work, and yet, there was a lot of money to be made. And kids
coming out of high school were making $20,000 a year, at some risk, of course.
And so it just occurred to me that this is exactly where Junior would have
ended up, and it was a way also of writing about that time and those issues.

GROSS: So tell me more about the presence of oil in your world when you were
growing up.

Mr. WELLS: Well, I grew up in this little tiny place called Bayou Black,
Louisiana, and there was a, you know, sort of Cajun enclave of about 200
families. Everybody in my mother's generation spoke French, you know, and
certainly my grandmother's generation spoke nothing but French. Oil came in
kind of early, but did not really take off until the '50s, '60s and '70s,
where there was these sort of boom-and-bust cycles. And there's no doubt that
it brought unparalleled, you know, economic prosperity to the place, but it
also changed it irrevocably in ways that, you know, it still has not, in my
opinion, recovered from.

GROSS: You know, reading your novels, they seem to be set in a different
country. The novels even have glossaries in the back for Cajun terms that we
might not know either what they mean or how to pronounce them.

Mr. WELLS: Well, there are a lot of people who say, politically, Louisiana
is a Third World nation. You know, I love the place, first of all, but it is
bedeviling in many ways. And one of the ways that it's bedeviling is that
there is no sense of how we ought to deal with change and growth and economic
development and oil. So as a result, there was this massive industry that
came in and was able, in part through political complicity in Louisiana, to
totally change the environmental landscape and the social landscape. And it
really, in many ways, sort of rent the fabric of the community. I mean, Bayou
Black when I moved out there in 1957, I would say, was a place that had not
changed much in 200 years. I mean, Southdown Sugar--my dad worked for a sugar
mill when he wasn't hunting alligators, and they still had a mule lot. They
didn't totally trust the tractor in 1957. And by 1975, you know, because of
growth and prosperity brought by oil, you know, there were subdivisions
basically lapping at our farmstead out there, and it started to look like
every other place in the world. So, you know, it definitely has left a mark
on the place.

GROSS: Would you physically describe Bayou Black when you were growing up?

Mr. WELLS: Well, imagine a small town, spread out, you know, along the
opposing banks of a bayou that runs about 12 miles. The bayous, basically,
were the distributaries of the mighty Mississippi River in that part of our
state. And they took runoff and, of course, as they flooded they built
levees. And the floodwise Cajuns, who came down there, settled those bayous
in the late 1700s, always built their homes along the bayou bank 'cause that
was the high ground. So basically, you know, the bayous were simply
communities stretched out along opposing bayou banks. And it didn't matter if
you lived at one end of the bayou or the other end of the bayou; basically,
before everybody started working for the oil industry, you know, people were
mainly farmers or they were fishermen or they were trappers.

You know, we lived a mile or two away from Alligator Annie, who was a Cajun
woman who ran a--still does, actually--had a bayouside menagerie where she
sort of collected swamp critters and showed them to tourists for a couple
dollars, and sold stuff to zoos. And there were six sons in my family, and my
father, who had come from the swamps of Arkansas, immediately signed us up
with Annie. We started collecting snakes for her, and so I spent--instead of
working in the 7-Eleven during my formative years, I was out tromping the
fields.

My Cajun grandmother was superstitious, and she was so opposed--see, my father
was not a man of the Catholic faith, and all Cajuns are Catholic, so it was
already a tragedy that, you know, my mother had married out of her faith. But
now her grandsons were trafficking in the serpent. I mean, this was, you
know, considered to be totally blasphemous. So one day when my dad was away
at the sugar mill, seriously, my grandmother shows up with my uncle and my
mother lines us all up on the front porch of our farmhouse, and my
grandmother's gotten holy water from the church up in Thibodaux, and she
sprinkles us all, and says, `Those snakes are not gonna get you now, boys.'
So...

GROSS: Did you grow up having any superstitions or religious fears of snakes?

Mr. WELLS: No, I love snakes. Early in my career I wanted to be a
herpetologist. You know, I was--I remember in eighth grade I weighed about 82
pounds, you know, and was 5'11", you know, so I was a beanpole, so I was not a
good athlete, but I knew all about snakes. My father had taught us all about
snakes. He wouldn't let us go hunt snakes without knowledge, so, you know,
I'd bring snakes to school, and, you know, the girls thought this was cool,
and so, you know, I enjoyed my sort of tenure as, you know, the snake charmer
of the eighth-grade class.

There's a beautiful snake down there--I know people will say, `Well, snakes
aren't beautiful.' There's a snake called the mud snake, and it's brilliantly
shiny black on the back and flaming red on the belly, and it grows quite
large. It can grow up to about seven or eight feet, actually. And they're
very, very rare, but what--its signature is that it has a vestigial horn at
the end of its tail. And Cajun superstition held that if that snake stung an
oak tree with its tail, the oak tree would die. And, of course, we were
collecting a few of these snakes, and they would prod you with this thing but,
you know, it was inept. It wouldn't hurt you. And they were actually quite
docile snakes. But when people found out we had mud snakes, they were
mortified. They just thought, you know, `You are just playing with fire,' you
know?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Ken Wells. He's the
features editor for Page One of The Wall Street Journal. He's also a
novelist, and his new novel is called "Junior's Leg." That and his previous
novel are set in the bayou of Louisiana.

What does it look like now in the part of the bayou where you grew up?

Mr. WELLS: Well, it's a sad thing for me. There are still beautiful,
beautiful pockets in Louisiana, and again, you know, it's--you know, the
Atchafalaya Swamp water runs through my veins, and about the second thing I do
when I get down there is get in a boat and go out on the bayou, into the marsh
or into the swamps. Usually I go fishing, but sometimes I just go looking,
you know. And there still are hauntingly beautiful places. And the truth is
the ecosystem down there, people don't quite realize this, from the
Mississippi River to the Sabine River in Texas, rivals the Florida Everglades.
You know, it just never got the press, you know, that the Everglades got.
And, of course, it's been also sort of bastardized by development.

But, you know, one of the saddest things to me--it was sort of a story of what
was to come but, you know, we squirrel-hunted every season--and I haven't
picked up a gun in 25 years, but, you know, I grew up in this family where my
grandfather was a hunter and my father was a hunter. And squirrel hunting
season to us was a ritual, you know, where we oiled up the guns and we shined
up our hunting boots and we got the dogs ready, and it was always on the 1st
of October and the weather was always beautiful. And so I have these
incredible memories. And you'd go at first light, and there would be fog on
the top of the oak trees. And what I realized later is that what I really
loved was being out there, you know, whether we got squirrels or not, even
though my granny made a really great squirrel dumpling, I have to tell you,
you know. You ever had squirrel dumplings?

GROSS: I have not.

Mr. WELLS: But anyway, we would go out there. Well, there's this place that
I hunted for probably eight years going, and it was this beautiful--there was
an old kind of slough that ran along the side of a cane field, leading up to
this big, beautiful ridge of oaks and then sort of tapering off into a cypress
swamp. And these trees must have been 200 years old, and they were just
gorgeous. And, you know, I would just--every opening day I would end up under
those trees when the sun came up, you know. And one year I went back there
and they were putting in a subdivision, you know, full of house trailers. And
the guy who was doing it, you know, had taken a D9 Caterpillar bulldozer and
bulldozed down those trees to put in a sewage lagoon, you know.

And, I mean, I still haven't gotten over that, you know? It's the kind of
thing that--it should have never happened, you know. We should have had some
modicum of zoning or planning. But, you know, to me it was sort of criminal,
you know. And we had this beautiful, beautiful place, and we just have not
taken very good care of it, unfortunately.

GROSS: My guest is Ken Wells. His new novel is called "Junior's Leg." More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ken Wells. He's features
editor for Page One of The Wall Street Journal, and he's a novelist whose new
novel is called "Junior's Leg." His first novel was called "Meely LaBauve."
They're both set in the bayous of Louisiana.

How did you go from snake-catching to journalism?

Mr. WELLS: Well, that's pretty hilarious.

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. WELLS: I'm an accidental journalist, you know. I wanted to be what
every boy who came of age around the '60s wanted to be, which was a rock star,
you know? And my brother had bought a guitar from Sears, you know, and we
were learning to play it. And I was in this failing rock band and I was 19
years old, and I had temporarily--I like to say I stepped aside from college,
but I actually had flunked out of college. I was majoring in Ping-Pong that
semester. But anyway, I was desperate for a job, and I'm cruising the want
ads of the little local weekly paper, and there's an ad saying, `Part-time
reporter wanted,' you know, `Apply in person.'

So I show up down there, and luckily, you know, it was low pay and almost no
standards, you know. They were--I think it was $1.87 an hour, and `Are you
willing to work 20 hours a week, and do you have a car?' And then the last
question was, `Let's see, Wells--now would you be related to that guy, Catfish
Willy Wells(ph)?' And, of course, that was my grandpa, Catfish Willy, as he
was known in town. And, you know, it was one of those moments where it's kind
of like a Clinton moment where, you know, `What do you mean by grandpa,' you
know? 'Cause my grandfather was a character, you know? And he, you know, as
I said, was a really good fisherman and he was a really good drinker, and
sometimes he would do both at the same time. He'd get a real elevated opinion
of his prowess.

Well, the thing--it was the kind of little paper that, you know--he would
catch these monster catfish. I'm serious. He one time caught a 52-pound
flathead catfish on a cane pole in the middle of the town, in a little place
off the Main Street bridge. Well, anytime he caught a fish over 25 pounds,
he'd ring up the newspaper and say, `Take my picture.' And usually they
would. And then if they didn't come promptly, you know, he'd drag the fish up
the stairs and say, `Here I am.'

So here was the loaded question, you know? `Is that crazy old codger who
drags his fish up our stairs your grandpa?' And I said, `Well, he is my
grandpa. He is.' And John B. Gordon, who hired me and launched my career,
bless his heart, said, you know, `If you've got half the gumption of your
grandpa, you can do this job.' And so that was the beginning. My journalism
career really is a fish story.

GROSS: You know, there's so much about your life that is so different from
mine, growing up, you know, in New York, in the North. There's things that
you've talked about that I have no comparable, you know, experience for. What
was it like when you left the bayou and started working in cities? I think
you were in Miami and then in New York. Did you feel like a foreigner?

Mr. WELLS: I often felt like a foreigner, and I still sometimes feel like a
foreigner. And, you know, my favorite joke is that, you know, I decided to
write my novels one day when I looked around the newsroom of The Wall Street
Journal and realized I was the only person who'd ever skinned a possum, you
know. But the truth is, you know, one of the things for me--and I think it
happens to a fair number of people who write--is that I had to get out of
there to be able to write about it. You know, I was too close to it while I
was there. You know, it didn't occur to me, honestly, Terry, when I was 19
years old that I'd had an interesting childhood. I mean, there are a lot of
kids down there whose fathers were alligator hunters, you know, and frog
hunters and commercial fishermen and who, you know, made their living partly
off the land. And, you know, I kind of took good-timing Cajun culture for,
you know, all culture.

So I think it actually took me a number of years, you know, away from the
bayou before it occurred to me that, `Wow, this is a strange place I grew up
in.' I think when I finally had kids--my oldest daughter now is 19 and my
youngest one is 14, but I realize--'cause, you know, as you say, you know, I
lived in Miami, I lived in San Francisco, I lived in London, and we were
living all over, and now New York, and I realized that they were not hav--you
know, their childhood was going to be nothing like mine. And, in fact, it
would be impossible to recreate it in any meaningful way just 'cause the bayou
has changed so much and we are now citizens of the globe and that sort of
thing. So my first efforts to write about the place were really to sort of
write down some of the stuff to give to my kids.

GROSS: Well, you are features editor now for Page One of The Wall Street
Journal, and The Wall Street Journal is famous, among other things, for its
feature stories on Page One, which are usually very colorful, often very odd,
one-of-a-kind type of stories. What qualifies a story for placement on Page
One in The Wall Street Journal?

Mr. WELLS: Well, for one thing, we like to do things that are fresh and have
not been done. So, you know, because we have a choice of the kinds of
features--in other words, you know--for instance, The New York Times does
great stuff, but they're almost obligated to do stuff that's always on the
news a lot of times, and we can often kind of take a step back. Since we're
not the paper of record when it comes to features, we can be a lot choosier.
I think that's one thing.

I think, you know, the middle column of the front page is an institution, at
least among journalism schools and journalism. You know, it's a story that we
like to say floats off the page every day, and it is quirky. And the whole
notion of that--it was actually invented in the '40s by our legendary managing
editor, a guy named Barney Kilgore. And a stock column used to run there, and
instead, he decided that our beleaguered business readers needed, you know, a
break from that, and so he started putting these kind of odd-duck features.

And we do--you know, there was--when I got to the San Francisco bureau, there
was a taciturn Texan named Ken Slocum(ph) who was the bureau chief, and there
was a new reporter there. I joined at the same time as a woman named Carrie
Dolan. And Slocum comes up to her and says, `You know, Carrie, I bet there's
a chance that a person could get in a car in San Francisco and drive clear
across the country for the cost of a night in a fancy New York hotel, and
that's $300, and you're going to do it.' So Carrie Dolan had to get in a
rental car and go across the country for under $300, and that became a
legendary sort of feature story in The Wall Street Journal.

They sent me off one time to Kodiak, Alaska, to do what? To cover a one-hole,
par 200 golf tournament up the side of a bear-infested mountain in the winter,
you know? So you can tell that there's a slightly twisted sensibility that's
at work here. And, of course, we do very serious things, too. You know, we
do serious, I think old-fashioned, muckraking journalism, as well, and, you
know--but altogether, I think the whole notion is to try to always be lively,
always be fresh, and try to always be ahead, which is what most papers are
trying to do anyway.

GROSS: Well, Ken Wells, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WELLS: Hey, this has been fun. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Ken Wells' new novel is called "Junior's Leg." We recorded that
interview a few days before September 11th, and we've been so caught up in
covering the aftermath of the attacks that we haven't played the interview
till now. The feature story on the front page of today's Wall Street Journal
is about a class instructing shopping-mall Santas how to answer kids'
questions about terrorism.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, music from and music inspired by James Bond movies,
performed by the band Sex Mob.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Steven Bernstein discusses his band Sex Mob, his
unique style of music and his life
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Wouldn't it be swell if James Bond really existed and could help root out the
terrorists? Well, at least we have a new CD of James Bond music eccentrically
interpreted by the jazz band Sex Mob. The CD "Sex Mob Does Bond" opens with
this Bond-inspired original composition "Dr. Yes," featuring John Medeski on
organ and Kenny Wollesen on drums.

(Soundbite of "Dr. Yes")

GROSS: "Dr. Yes" was composed by my guest Steven Bernstein, the trumpeter
and leader of the band Sex Mob. Bernstein has been a longtime member and
musical director of John Lurie's Lounge Lizards. He orchestrated, arranged
and conducted such film scores as "Get Shorty," "Kansas City" and "Clay
Pigeons." A review in Spin Magazine said, `Sex Mob is all the fun that jazz,
and lately rock, has forgotten to have.'

(Soundbite of "Dr. Yes")

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Yes! Yes! Yes, yes, Dr. Yes. Yes, yes, Dr.
Yes. Yes, yes, Dr. Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes...

GROSS: I love the James Bond music. So...

Mr. STEVEN BERNSTEIN (Musician): I do, too.

GROSS: It's got, like, big drama in it and these, like, sexy tango rhythms
and stuff. What gets you about the music?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, it's there--it's all there. It's exotic. You know,
it's great when music can take you to another place. And I think one of the
greatest things is that you can actually listen to these records and kind of
imagine in your head a James Bond--just that whole larger concept of Bond.

And you listen to these records, and John Barry's scores are just--I mean,
they're melodically really strong, but there's also a bit--I mean, John
Barry's a very interesting musician. He was one of the first musicians--he
was a trumpet player, and he was one of the early composers that could
successfully mix jazz music, classical music and what was the beginning at the
time of rock 'n' roll, or pop music. He had a combo that had two guitars in
it, but they read music as opposed to--usually when you hear electric guitars
in music, they're improvising, they're playing rhythms parts in those. And
his music always had written electric guitar parts, which is a very specific
sound of a certain era, which I happen to love. And, you know, whenever you
hear that--(hums guitar sequence for the James Bond theme song)--really low in
the guitar register that's a real John Barry trademark.

GROSS: Which Bond movies have you gone to where the music was most
noticeable? Or do you love the music more from sitting home listening to your
recordings from your soundtracks?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: That is, actually--I got to say, that's how I've learned to
love the music most, because it's interesting--I just watched "Goldfinger"
with my son, and a lot of this music is from "Goldfinger." And it's
interesting how much of it gets ducked. See, when you actually--when you
score a film, they end up ducking a lot of the music either for dialogue or
for explosions and car crashes.

GROSS: By `ducking' you mean fading it out or covering it up.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Yeah, right. They actually have to bring the music down and
then bring up the special effects at the end. See, that's the last part of
making a film, is they bring it all together on a soundstage and they take the
music and they bring it up and down according to, like, what else is
happening. So if there's dialogue, they bring the music down. And, again,
especially in action films, there's a lot of car crashes, there's a lot of
explosions, helicopter sounds, train sounds--all those things makes the music
come down.

But when you actually listen to--you know, like I said, I had these score
records on vinyl. You actually get to hear the entire piece, and you realize
they're really beautiful pieces of music, too.

GROSS: Each of the tracks have titles that relate to the part of the plot the
music is being played in. So I thought we'd play a track that's called
"Oddjob's Pressing Engagement."

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Can I just tell you? I just found out what that was because I
just saw "Goldfinger."

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: That's the scene where they've killed a guy and they've put
him in the back of a car, and then the car gets compacted in one of those huge
compactors. And picked...

GROSS: Oh, pressing engagement. I get it.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Pressing engagement. Yeah.

GROSS: OK. So obviously, this is from "Goldfinger," and you hear the
"Goldfinger" theme and the 007 theme weaving in and out of it. Tell me why
you choose this track to do on your CD.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Every track I choose because I felt the melodies stood strong
enough to be played in the individual manner. Pieces I felt could withstand
what I call the `Sex Mob treatment,' which is that these melodies are going to
be played literally, but they're also going to be stretched to their limits,
and, you know, they'll be able to hold on and, you know, withstand the
treatment.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear the treatment of...

Mr. BERNSTEIN: OK.

GROSS: ..."Oddjob's Pressing Engagement" from the James Bond film
"Goldfinger." And this is music from the CD "Sex Mob Does Bond."

(Soundbite of "Oddjob's Pressing Engagement")

GROSS: Music from the CD "Sex Mob Does Bond," and my guest, Steven Bernstein,
is the founder of Sex Mob.

Steven, talk a little bit more about the Sex Mob treatment when you choose a
song to do.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, Sex Mob's--and we've been together about six years--and
now many people know us as a cover band, because when you come to hear Sex
Mob, you probably hear songs by Abba, James Brown, Prince, The Grateful Dead,
Duke Ellington, The Rolling Stones, etc., etc.--what I call the 20th century
songbook. It didn't start this way.

It started off as, like, most bands in New York--you know, some extension of a
person's ego when you have your music and your idea of what you want to do.
And unlike most bands, we never rehearsed. We only played gigs. We started
off having a weekly gig. And what I would do is I would show up kind of with
a chart every week, or a couple of charts, and we'd just played live. You
know, we were playing at the Knitting Factory tap bar very late at night, from
11 to 2 in the morning every Thursday.

And I had just started listening to Bond vinyl. I mean, it's kind of all
goes--it's a circular thing here. And I had made a chart of this song called
"Bond with Bongos." And we started playing it, and it starts off with a long
vamp. I originally used it because I thought it'd be a good vehicle for a
drum solo at the end of the piece. And then we started off with a kind of
introduction and let the bass play a little bit. And we hit the James Bond
theme", and suddenly this whole bar just erupts in, like, screaming and the
applause and this kind of general feeling of happiness. And I went, `Wow,
this is great. I mean, here we are playing this totally unconventional style
of music and everybody just reacted in this great way.'

And I realized that if you play themes that people know, it doesn't matter how
you play them, because they can connect with them, even if you're, like,
approaching them from a very, you know, unorthodox approach to playing music.
And so I started searching for themes that were really strong and we could
play in anyway we wanted in the--we tend to play songs different every time we
play--that people would still recognize.

GROSS: A lot of your repertoire comes from the '60s through the '80s. Are
you doing more current songs?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: We just added Britney Spears' "Oops...I Did It Again."

GROSS: Oh, really?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: I love that song.

GROSS: It's a really well-produced record.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: I--you know, to be honest, I haven't made it through the
whole record, but I--but it's a great little song. It's almost like a tango.
You know, it's this kind of minor, kind of rhythm that--I mean, it's a minor
melody and the kind of rhythm is almost a tango rhythm. And we just started
doing it on our last tour. And, you know, the thing is is not--it's hard to
find a good, strong melody. And, you know, that's--like I say, that's what
I'm looking for is a melody that can withstand the force of Sex Mob.

GROSS: You know, you had mentioned that at the Knitting Factory bar when you
were playing the James Bond theme, that people went nuts.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: Now you do that on the new CD in the track that you were mentioning,
the "Bond with Bongos"...

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Right.

GROSS: ...and it's almost like a can-can version of the Bond theme. Let me
just play that.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: OK.

(Soundbite of "Bond with Bongos")

GROSS: Why did you do the Bond theme in that manner?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: I wish I could tell you there's an answer for this stuff, but
it's just the way it happened.

GROSS: You're very intuitive, obviously.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Yeah. I mean--yeah, the thing is this is a working band.
This band has worked for six years. This music is unrehearsed. I mean, it's
all written. These are all charts, but I don't believe in rehearsing things.
Well, I can't afford to. And it's allowed me to create a philosophy of not
believing in rehearsing.

And the beauty of that is what you get when you listen to one of my CDs is you
get the first take of something. And I kind of feel there are so many CDs
that come out now that it's--you want to have something special in your CD,
and I think one of the great things I try to capture on tape is a feeling of
something actually happening, that is musicians reacting to each other for the
first time.

Now musicians tend to be very smart people. And, obviously, if we're making
CDs, we've been what we've been doing for a long time. So once you rehearse
something once, then the musician starts thinking with the other side of that
brain. They go like, `You know what? When we get to this part, I'm going to
do this.' They're already thinking ahead. But if you get that first take,
where they're not even sure what the other musicians are playing and they're
constantly reacting and maybe even making tiny mistakes and then creating
something new out of that, that's what you get on these CDs.

And so like I said, I can't really tell you why I choose that rhythm, or why
we did it that way, but basically, I probably just said, `Listen, we're going
to start with a bass solo, you know, we're going to hit this theme and then
we're going to end with a drum solo, and let's hit it,' and counted it off.
And that's what happened.

GROSS: My guest is Steven Bernstein, trumpeter and leader of the band Sex
Mob. Their new CD is called "Sex Mob Does Bond." We'll talk more and hear
more music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is trumpeter Steven Bernstein. He's the leader of the group
Sex Mob. Their new CD features music from and music inspired by James Bond
movies.

You play trumpet and slide trumpet. We think of a slide as being on a
trombone, but not on a trumpet. What's a slide trumpet?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: A slide trumpet is a precursor to the trumpet, and it's an
instrument that's been around since before the trumpet. And nobody plays it,
except for me.

GROSS: What does it look like?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: It looks like a little trombone, but more handsome.

GROSS: Why do you like to play it?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, there's a couple reasons. First of all, I got to say
when I--I've had one since 1997, and I say no one plays it, but actually a lot
of people have them and a lot of people do mess around with them. But no one
has never tried to actually create a language on the instrument. You know
what I'm saying?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Like, I've actually gone out there and made records only
playing the instrument, and I go on the road and I'm playing that instrument
every night in front of audiences. And that's what no one's ever tried to do.

And the great thing is it's a very vocal instrument, and there's always these
things I was always hearing in my head when I played the trumpet. I'd hear
Otis Redding or I'd hear Jimi Hendrix playing the guitar or I'd hear the way
Burning Spear--I don't know if you listen to reggae music--but when Winston
Rodney, the singer from Burning Spear sings, he sings really high up on the
pitch. And I would try to do these things on the trumpet, and you couldn't
really do it because the way the trumpet is set up it was really hard to push
the instruments that way. And with a slide trumpet, it's so expressive you
that can pull the notes in any directions.

GROSS: So you can make something a little sharper, a little flat.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: A lot sharp and a lot flat. I mean, that's the things. It's
an instrument that's lends itself to large gestures.

GROSS: And you can also get these raspberry kind of sounds on it.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Yeah. Well, that's not my--that's me. I mean, I don't know
if everybody could get that, but that's what I can get on that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Right.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: I mean, that's part of--that's also part of my going back to
the early tradition of brass playing, though. Those what you call raspberry
sound, those growl sounds and those human sounds are part of the tradition of
trumpet playing and of brass playing that's largely been lost. If you go back
to the '20s and the early '30s, there was a very vocal tradition of playing
the brass instruments.

And I got to say while I'm saying that, the great thing about the slide
trumpet is it freed me from--see, when you play an instrument like the
trumpet, you're almost like a prisoner of history, because always in your head
you're hearing Louis Armstrong, you're hearing Miles Davis, you're hearing
Dizzy Gillespie, you're hearing Clifford Brown, you're hearing Lee Morgan,
you're hearing, like, the greats. And you're always, in a sense, comparing
yourself to them. And, you know, you have these three valves in front of you,
and there's these things you've learned to do, and it's hard to free yourself
from history. Do you know what I'm saying?

GROSS: Yeah, I do.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: And here I have an instrument with no history. So in a
sense, there's no right or wrong way to play this instrument. It's like
whatever I do, if I can get away with it, it's OK. And it's been really
freeing for me as a musician to be able--like, I can play whatever I want when
I pick this instrument up.

GROSS: Let me play a track that I think it's fair to say shows off your slide
trumpet playing. This is a track called "Roswell."

(Soundbite of "Roswell")

GROSS: That's Steven Bernstein on slide trumpet from the first Sex Mob CD.
Their new CD is called "Sex Mob Does Bond."

You grew up in Berkeley, stayed in the Bay Area for--I don't know--through
high school, at least. I don't know about college. And you ended up in New
York.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Mm-hmm. Right.

GROSS: When you got to New York, you fell in with John Zorn and the music
scene that he was helping to create. Did it change your direction at all to
meet the group of musicians in New York that you played with?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: No, because actually they were the logical extension of what
we were doing in Berkeley. I was really lucky that growing up, there was a
guy named Phil Hardyman, a great teacher who died a couple of years ago. He
started a jazz program along with Dick Whittington and Herb Wong in 1969,
where they started fourth-graders improvising. And in fourth grade, we had a
jazz band, and a lot of great musicians have come through that program, one of
them being Peter Apfelbaum, who've I've been playing music with since we
were--I guess, I was in fifth grade and he was in sixth grade. And Peter
started a band called The Berkeley Free Jazz Unit, and we were--I don't
know--14 years old, and it was a band of 14- and 15-year-olds based on the Art
Ensemble of Chicago and Albert Ayler.

And the great thing is--I mean, by the time we got to high school, we used to
get together and do, like, these long, you know, free--like free impr--do
these--like get together after school and improvise for hours, and all summer
we'd improvise every day. And in high school, we'd actually gotten really
good at this and we'd put on concerts. And, of course, you know, all the
girls would come to the concerts because we were these musician guys. And
then, of course, all the jocks would come to the concert because the girls
were there. So in Berkeley, you had this great scene of, like, you know, the
swim team and the baseball team coming to hear these, you know, hour-long
concerts of free improvisation. I mean, it was a once-in-a-lifetime
experience.

So when I met John--I mean, the first people I met were the Microscopic
Sextet, and at that time John Zorn was playing alto saxophone with them. And
it was at the Eyre Inn and it was a Sunday afternoon, and Elliott Sharp was
sitting in and Wayne Horwitz was hanging out and Bobby Previte was hanging
out. And kind of, like, in one afternoon, I met, like, that whole scene, and
I immediately fell in with them because they were playing the kind of music
that I was attracted to, and they weren't that much older than me. We had a
lot in common. And, you know, I was already the kind of guy who could play
free improvisation, but I could also read music and I had a lot of--or some
understanding of jazz tradition to be continued.

GROSS: My guest is Steven Bernstein, trumpeter and leader of the band Sex
Mob. Their new CD is called "Sex Mob Does Bond." We'll talk more and hear
more music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is trumpeter Steven Bernstein. He's the leader of the group
Sex Mob. Their new CD features music from and music inspired by James Bond
movies.

I want to play a track from a CD that you made a couple of years ago. And
this was a CD that was made for the musician and composer John Zorn's series
called "Radical Jewish Culture." And the CDs in that series have ranged from
klezmer music to just kind of out there music that's composed by Jewish
musicians. What's your interpretation of the "Radical Jewish Culture" series
that Zorn started?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: My interpretation of that is that it's John's way--John's
really an amazing human being. And it's John's way of giving each musician an
assignment. And that assignment is: What is this music to you?

GROSS: So what was your idea?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, my idea was that the Jewish melodies are not that
different than--there's a certain harmonic progression to these beautiful
minor--these ancient Jewish melodies. And that's basically a one-five-one--we
call them one-five-one, or a one-four-five-one progression, which is the same
progression you find in New Orleans--you know, like, all these New Orleans
rock 'n' roll songs, and the same thing you hear if you listen to, like,
traditional, like, Cuban singers singing over--when they just sing over
rumbas. They sing these melodies, these ancient--these also old melodies.

And I realize there's this, like--all these melodies are almost the same, but
the thing is that Jewish music doesn't really--there's not really a rhythm.
There is an internal rhythm to Jewish music, but Jewish music isn't really
done with drums. It's kind of sung freely with an internal rhythm. And I
realized, `Well, these melodies are almost the same, these harmonies are the
same. If I start using these rhythms that are part of my life, like, who I
am'--because, see, I never--I didn't come up playing klezmer music or
listening to klezmer music. I came up listening to jazz music and listening
to R&B music and listening to salsa music and listening to Cuban rumberos and
listening to music from New Orleans. And that's my music. That's who I am.

So I figured, `I need to play music in my rhythms, the rhythms that make me
comfortable.' And I realize that these rhythms from this music and the
harmony that naturally goes with this music also fits this ancient melodies.
There's a natural combinations of all this musics. And I figured I could take
this music--these melodies that I've known since I was a little kid--I mean,
even though I wasn't a super-religious Jew--we only went to temple, you know,
fairly often and we celebrated the holidays and we celebrated the Sabbath.
And you grow up hearing these songs--and we had a great, beautiful cantor in
Berkeley. A real older guy, a real classic cantor with a lot of hair coming
out of his ears. And these melodies were inside of me. And then, there was
these rhythms were inside of me, too. So I combined them all--I combined this
kind of New Orleans rhythm section with the electric piano and the bass. And
I combined the klava(ph) rhythms and the drums. And then I put these Jewish
melodies on top of them.

GROSS: Well, let me play "Hassen Kolleh Mazel Tov."

Mr. BERNSTEIN: That's one everybody loves.

GROSS: So tell us a little bit about the traditional song and what you've
done with it.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, I mean, it's really funny. I mean, I came up with this
playing a wedding. `Hassen kolleh mazel tov' means `Mazel tov to the bride
and groom,' and it's a song you play at every Jewish wedding. And it usually
goes, `Bop, bop, bop, bee, bee, doo, dee, doo, doo, doo. Doo, doo, doo, doo,
doo, doo, doo, doo'--very fast, you know, and people dance very fast in a
circle. Actually, that's not a circle. They dance around the bride and groom
who are sitting in a chair.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: And I realized--I was kind of like sitting by myself kind of
working out the melody, you know, and I'm playing like a plunging
waa, jo, bay, b-yom, b-yom. Hof, hof, hof, wham, bow, bow, b-yam, b-yam,
w-yom, w-yom.' And I was like, `Man, you can play this, like--it really fits
right into that kind of whole New Orleans tradition.' And then I took that
and kind of instead of doing the New Orleans jazz tradition, I kind of put it
in the New Orleans rock 'n' roll tradition. I mean, it's kind of, like, an
almost classic, call it like a Dave Bartholomew-style arrangement. He did all
these great rock 'n' roll arrangements. He was Fats Domino's arranger. He
was a trumpet player--is a trumpet player. He's still alive in New Orleans.
And when you hear the track, you'll hear what I mean. It's pretty
self-explanatory.

GROSS: Well, Steven Bernstein, I want to thank you very much for talking with
us.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, Terry Gross, you rock.

(Soundbite of "Hassen Kolleh Mazel Tov")

GROSS: Music from Steven Bernstein's CD "Diaspora Soul." His band Sex Mob
has a new CD called "Sex Mob Does Bond."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a good Thanksgiving.

(Soundbite of "Hassen Kolleh Mazel Tov")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

42:37

Anthony Bourdain: The 'Fresh Air' Interview

We listen back to our 2016 interview with the late food writer and TV host, who killed himself in 2018 while in France to film Parts Unknown. Bourdain is the subject of a new documentary, Roadrunner.

08:53

'Schmigadoon!' Is A Star-Studded Parody That's Worth Singing About

Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong play a couple who wander into a magical town where everyone seems to break into song. You don't have to be a fan of musical theater to enjoy this Apple TV+ series.

42:17

US Faces Crossroads On Renewable Energy Future — Go Big or Go Local

NY Times reporter Ivan Penn unpacks the debate over infrastructure: Do we fund huge wind and solar farms with new transmission lines, or go local, with rooftop solar panels, batteries and micro-grids?

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue