Listen: Mo’Fone

Hailing from the Bay Area, Mo’Fone has been teasin’ and pleasin’ audiences up and down the Left Coast for the better part of a decade, most recently at this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival. Continually voted as a top draw by both fans and critics, including Best Jazz Group in a 2008 East Bay Readers’ Poll, Mo’Fone returns the love by delivering a powerhouse sound that is both fun and downright mesmerizing.

To say that Mo’Fone is a jazz band is not an untrue statement. However, it could be a bit misleading. Mo’Fone’s music definitely falls under the “jazz” umbrella, yet it’s not jazz in a traditional sense. “Funk” has also been used to describe the band and its music. Combining funky soul grooves with a jazz foundation is not particularly surprising; however, Mo’Fone doesn’t necessarily do that-–at least not in a way one might expect. Almost everything about this group is non-traditional.

The lineup alone defies tradition of both genres–a drummer and two saxophonists who double with a few other sundries. On the surface, with that kind of line-up, the first thing that comes to mind is avant or some form of experimental jazz a-la artists on the Leo Records or hatOLOGY labels. The strict funk constructionist side of me would claim that one cannot have funk without the bottom and that, with no bass, there is no bottom. However, the creative, activist side would argue that funk, jazz-hell, all music–is a living entity subject to change and interpretation over time, and one that is often best enjoyed outside the box.

This band certainly fits the latter description. Thinking outside the box is what got the band together in the first place.  Drummer/percussionist Jeremy Steinkoler described Mo’Fone’s creation as a “serendipitous accident” when I spoke to him via phone. Steinkoler and sax-man Jim Peterson (baritone sax, bass clarinet, percussion) were two parts of a trio, with the third part being a bass player. The bassist failed to show up for a gig, effectively leaving the other two searching for a replacement. After filing through their mental rolodexes, the two called on Larrry De La Cruz, an alto sax player, who also contributes flute, clarinet and percussion. From the band’s inception, it has been evident these musicians tend to favor the unexplored areas of harmony, melody, and rhythm, seeking to challenge and redefine the norms on their terms.

Perhaps more as a means of practicality, when the band first started out, they stuck with jazz standards, albeit not necessarily delivered as such. As they investigated the possibilities within their instrumentation, a new sound naturally evolved. On their first album, Surf’s Up (Evander Music,2003), the band teased with some esoteric covers of artists like Professor Longhair and Weather Report (replacing Pastorius’ basslines with a baritone sax) to help introduce their bombastic sound. In praise of their debut, All About Jazz critic Jim Nelson said, “If Mo’Fone doesn’t blow your socks off, you’re not paying attention.”

Their followup, 2009’s Sling Shot (Evander Music), features a band very comfortable in its skin. During the six years between albums, the players began to explore other sonic possibilities, which led to writing music specifically for the band. Consisting of all original material, with the exception of a unique interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In the Rain”, the collaborative and individual songwriting efforts are on full display with Sling Shot.

If any proof was needed that funk can be “bass-less”, it can be found on Mo’Fone’s single “Wiggle”. It is also a perfect demonstration of the call-and-response playfulness that Peterson and De La Cruz execute. The song begins with a light groove comprised of a short repetitive phrase played by both horns, only to have one venture off. The saxes return together and repeat the phrases until the other takes off.  A perfect game of catch if there ever was one.

“Say What” is introduced with quacks emanating from saxophone’s bell, followed by a quick response and then a sublime melding into harmonization. Just shy of becoming too comfortable in the harmony, the horns split and proceed to develop into more than conventional melody and the rhythm. The two saxes soar above the page and broaden the view, all the while maintaining a fluidity to their dynamic. While listening to “Say What”, I almost forget there is no bass or even a rhythm section (in the traditional sense) on the track. I wrote to Steinkoler and asked if there was any looping or mechanical manipulation on the track to account for the sonic layers; he responded, “Nope! It’s all live.” The foundation of the tune (and many of the band’s other songs) is Steinkoler’s drumming, which was described on as “orchestral, filling up just enough space so that the band’s sound is always crunchy and satisfying.”

The quick, light snapping of the drum kit leads into “Rock of Ages”, a song in the tradition of the Second Line. As I first listened, without any prior awareness of the fact, I thought it sounded an awful lot like a funeral march: the slow, rolling drum marching on accompanied by a slightly somber, lower tone from the saxophones. As the song progresses, it becomes all too evident that a funeral march is pretty much what the song is, or at least is emulating. As with the Second Line progressions, the music often begins in a melancholic fashion, then develops into a more joyous explosion of sound and celebration of life. Mo’Fone introduces changes in tempo and style through a short, uptempo drum cue, and from then on, the setting is pure New Orleans.

Mo’Fone has not had much exposure outside of California and the Bay Area, in particular. They made the final cut for the Capital Jazz Fest in Washington, D.C. last year, and earlier this year, the band inked a distribution deal with Virtuoso Music out of Florida. With a national distribution deal, Mo’Fone should most certainly be making its way back towards the Heartland and East Coast soon. One listen to their songs has convinced me that they would only be better live.

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