Sexmob, Asher Fulero Band, Jazz is PHSH review: three degrees of fusion

A Portland triple bill features bands that combine jazz, rock, funk, jam, and other ingredients in varying proportions


Jazz has come to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. So when you combine jazz elements with other styles of music, it tends to make what genre you’re listening to hard to pin down. Is it jazz? Is it jazz fusion? Or is it something that isn’t jazz but gets put in that category anyways? I found representations of all three categories on stage at Portland’s Star Theater one night last month.

Sexmob, the New York based jazz punk-rock fusion quartet, has been tearing it up for twenty years. Their instrumentation, with Kenny Wollesen on drum set, Tony Scherr on electric bass, Briggan Krauss on alto saxophone, and Steven Bernstein taking the lead on the rarely seen slide trumpet, makes for an interesting combination. I’d never seen the the slide trumpet played live before, it looks and plays like a miniature trombone, but sounds very much like a trumpet, with the addition of being capable of playing smears and glissandi typically associated with trombone. I would be hard pressed to name anyone else who played this instrument, a fact I’m sure that Bernstein took into account when deciding to first take up the instrument.

Sexmob’s Steven Bernstein

Sexmob’s music, like their bandleader’s instrument, is equally unique. Yet the ensemble actually does exactly what jazz musicians have been doing for decades. Sexmob comes at you with a staggering variety of styles and melds them together. This is what was exciting about listening to them play. One moment slide trumpet and saxophone are playing familiar pop melodies over a grooving second line drum pattern, the next they are blasting middle-eastern or klezmer infused solos over a raucous punk rock feel.

Alto saxophonist Krauss takes his style straight out of the John Zorn playbook, to great effect, with carefully crafted noise juxtaposed with melodious and rhythmically decisive improvisations. The entire ensemble has a talent that you tend to expect of great jazz musicians: balancing the avant garde with the mainstream. They craft musical environs familiar for the audience, like quoting melodies of pop tunes as they play a warm-up jam, and then take you on a journey through their personal style. Sexmob’s confluence of styles, confident stage presence that could only come from decades of experience, and their ability to achieve these within a wider interpretation of jazz, is testament to the depth of talent these musicians possess.

Sexmob’s set included many songs from their new album, Cultural Capital, which they had officially released the day before.  Much of it was high energy and noisy, eschewing typical swing styles associated with jazz and instead driven by a variety of rock beats. Some songs sounded happily disjointed, jumping from noisy, free jazz rock fusion, to circus music, and almost always with Wollesen playing energetically on the drumset. They knew how to chill out too, though, and their set was punctuated with interludes of storytelling by Bernstein, music from the classic film Amarcord, and slow meandering improvisations inspired by other Fellini soundtracks.

It was with more than a little disappointment, then that I noticed that a majority of the audience hadn’t really picked up on any of this. There was a definite “we’re only here for the headliner” vibe. You can tell when this happens because the audience will try as hard as they can to drown out the band by talking very loudly among themselves. Sexmob picked up on this, Bernstein mentioned the floor noise being part of a larger musical universe, and played on undeterred and uncompromised.

There is a larger, newer philosophy at work here that you might not expect from a jazz fusion band, too. As part of their punk rock ethos, Sexmob was selling Cultural Capital completely apart from the larger distribution apparatus of the corporate music industry. As Bernstein put it “this isn’t music for the 1%” but is intended to be apart from the mainstream, and for their audience and the lovers of their music.

Return to Return to Forever

The opening act, the Asher Fulero Band, with Fulero on keyboards and vocals, Brett McConnell on bass, Darvey Santner and Nathan Day on guitar, and Murray Gusseck on drums, was like Portland’s answer to Return to Forever, just with an extra guitar. I’ve seen Fulero play before, but only in a solo piano context. What I’d seen of Fulero’s playing before proved wildly creative as his solo piano compositions melded classical and jazz styles simultaneously. His band does the same with jazz and rock.

The band’s playing was intense and tight, with all the musicians responding to each other like well rehearsed, ass kicking machine. Although they describe themselves primarily as a fusion of funk, jazz, and jam band, what I heard that night had some serious roots in the kind of jazz/rock fusion popularized by bands from the 1970s and ‘80s like Weather Report and Return to Forever. I was getting some serious Chick Corea (the jazz pianist founder of Return to Forever) vibes from Fulero’s writing and improvisation styles. His playing was infused with the same asymmetrical melodies, the band’s songs had used similar rhythmic breaks and transitions, and the band often fused Spanish and calypso grooves.

Gone PHSHn

The headliner, Jazz is PHSH, was the least exciting of the three bands to play the Star Theater that night. The project by brothers Adam and Mathew Chase intends to pay tribute to the band Phish in the same funk meets jam band (the term jazz only applies to this band in the most general sense) way that Jazz is Dead paid tribute to the Grateful Dead. I’m not a big Phish fan, so I can’t speak to how well they represented their idols, but I will try and give you the rundown of what I did hear.

Jazz is PHSH is loud. Loud and fast, but not in the good way.  Usually, what makes loudness sound good is a contrast with a softer, or less loud section or song. This juxtaposition gives your listener a chance to identify your use of loudness with whatever emotion you’re targeting: surprise, anger, excitement, etc.  Even if you can’t be quieter, sometimes you can fake it by arranging your songs to include sections that are less complicated, less rhythmically busy, that give the impression of a volume contrast.

A Taste of JAZZ IS PHSH from MPA Videography on Vimeo.

None of this was evident in Jazz is PHSH’s playing. In less than half an hour, every song began to meld into one loud, fast, homogenous lump. This can be a problem, especially if your intention is to give a horn section the melody from a song was originally sung. But if you can barely hear the horn section over the rest of the band, what’s the point? It was similar during all the solos. If you were part of the horn section, you were barely heard.

This wasn’t a problem for Sexmob. Granted, their band was a lot smaller, but still balancing horns with their rhythm section isn’t an impossible task with a larger ensemble.

I again found myself disappointed that, during the usual “let’s thank the previous band platitudes,” Chase mispronounced Sexmob as “Sex Bomb.” This was indicative of the general musical vibe from their set.

To their credit though, the rhythm section was tight and in the pocket, and if you are going to spend most of your night playing loud, fast funk, you’d better be. They also brought Asher Fulero on to play keys with them, and he was certainly pulling his weight during the set.

Fulero and PHSH. Photo: Jason Abell.

They also knew their audience. Lots of folks are really into Phish, and Jazz is PHSH’s audience were obviously not there to nitpick over musical details. They were there to dance, to drink, to party, and listen to Phish covers. End of story. And that loud and fast jam band funk pushed all the right buttons, kind of like saying “fuck it” and getting a hamburger at McDonalds because you don’t feel like making dinner for yourself.

My biases and criticisms aside, there was something there that night for different kinds of fusion fans. You had the Asher Fulero Band representing old school jazz rock fusion. You had Sexmob and their meld of jazz, punk, klezmer, Fellini, and experimental. And you had Jazz is PHSH with their jazzish but mostly funk and jam band appeal. If you liked to dance and party they had you covered, and if you liked to geek out and listen you were in for a treat from Sexmob and Asher Fulero Band as well. However you want to label it is ultimately less important than how well the bands achieved their musical objective, and that depends on what you came for.

Patrick McCulley is an Oregon born saxophonist, educator, and composer with an M.M. in saxophone performance. He is the saxophone instructor and director for the Portland Music Collective. His non-musical interests include tea, cats, rain, science fiction and international travel.

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