By Andrew Gilbert
When it comes to funk, less is often more. The band Mo’Fone puts that insight into insistently syncopated practice on just about every piece. Led by El Cerrito drummer Jeremy Steinkoler, Mo’Fone, which performs a late set Friday at Michael Parayno’s singular Birdland Jazzista Social Club, is a stripped down combo featuring Larry De La Cruz on alto sax, clarinet and flute and Jim Peterson on baritone sax and bass clarinet.
Veteran reed players with extensive jazz and R&B credits, they seamlessly shift roles on each tune, sliding from riffing support to propulsive solos. Somehow, the trio captures the kinetic power and sonic punch of a funk horn section and a brass band, but distilled to its essence.
The band’s first album, 2003’s “Surf’s Up,” introduced Steinkoler’s surprisingly effective minimalist concept. As impressive as its full sound was the trio’s intriguing repertoire, which ranged from “Black Market” by the fusion supergroup Weather Report, and “African Market” by South African piano legend Abdullah Ibrahim to Earl King’s Mardi Gras classic “Big Chief.”
When Mo’Fone resurfaced five years later with “Sling Shot,” New Orleans had moved to the center of its sound, with a guest appearance by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band sousaphone master Kirk Joseph.
At its best, funk is serious business, requiring discipline, precision and the blues-infused knowledge that pleasure and grief are two sides of the same coin. That’s the spirit that animates Mo’Fone, and it’s no coincidence that much of the music flows from birth and death.
On “Bee,” a tune inspired by Steinkoler’s experience of fatherhood, he shows the band is also fully capable of waxing lyrical. Throughout the album, Steinkoler does a masterly job of directing Mo’Fone from the drums. Rather than trying to fill up all the space available with the absence of a piano, guitar or bass, he leaves plenty of room for the music to breath. As much as the powerful grooves, Steinkoler’s music is built on catchy melodic hooks that keep snapping back into your memory.
While the trio’s visibility has waxed and waned over the past decade, Steinkoler and crew seems to be ramping up again this summer, culminating in a coveted booking at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September. That’s good news, ‘cause there’s no combo on the scene that sounds like Mo’Fone, a little band that delivers mo’ funk, mo’ sound and mo’ fun.
Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.