The definition of funk: Mo’Fone plays Berkeley

Mo Fone

Mo’ Fone bring their singularly propulsive sound to Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Thursday May 15. Photo: courtesy Mo’Fone

The Oxford English Dictionary has yet to add the word “’Fonology” to its hallowed lexicon so let me provide this helpful definition for the euphonious noun. ’Fonology: the study of distilling grooves to essential components. Credit for its coinage goes to the potent East Bay trio Mo’Fone, which celebrates the release of its captivating third album ’Fonology Thursday May 15 at the Freight & Salvage.

Featuring El Cerrito drummer Jeremy Steinkoler and the prodigious horn section tandem of San Francisco baritone saxophonist Jim Peterson and Berkeley altoist Larry De La Cruz, Mo’Fone has honed a singularly propulsive sound based on the insight that less can be more when it comes to funk.

The band’s first album, 2003’s Surf’s Up (Evander Music), introduced Steinkoler’s surprisingly effective minimalist concept. Interpreting an intriguing range of material, such as “Black Market” by the fusion supergroup Weather Report, “African Market” by South African piano legend Abdullah Ibrahim, Earl King’s Mardi Gras classic “Big Chief,” and Bengali film anthems “Mera Dil Yeh Pukare/Man Dole Mera,” the trio created a mighty sound evoking the kinetic power and sonic punch of a funk horn section backed by Steinkoler’s orchestral drum work.

Featuring genuine New Orleans royalty on two tracks, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s founding sousaphone master Kirk Joseph, Mo’Fone’s 2008 followup Sling Shot (Evander Music) fully embraced the trio’s brass band affinity with a program of original tunes inspired by an array of Crescent City beats. Joseph is back as a guest on two ’Fonology tunes, but New Orleans grooves are only part of the picture this time as the band explores various textures and moods joined by trombonist Marty Wehner, Stephen Kent on didgeridoo and percussion, and saxophonist Danny Bittker (who will all be on hand Thursday at the Freight).

“The second album centered around New Orleans funk, which is so fun to play,” says Steinkoler, who also co-founded and co-directors the original school of rock, BandWorks. “With the new album we’ve gotten back to a more eclectic scope. For me, as a drummer, New Orleans funk is where I live. That’s the stuff I love, playing between the cracks. And the instrumentation so reminiscent of a brass band we serve that material really well. But at the same time Larry and Jim are deep into Wayne Shorter and other modern sax players and composers and they bring some of that to it as well.”

Mo’Fone was the result of a happy accident rather than aesthetic calculation. Faced with a last-minute cancellation by his bassist for a 2001 trio gig at Cato’s Ale House on Piedmont, Steinkoler gave De La Cruz a call. He’d been wanting to play more with the saxophonist since they met on faculty at Cazadero Performing Arts Family Camp, so he called De La Cruz to join him and Jim Peterson despite the odd instrumentation.

“We had so much fun playing, we said let’s do that again. A monthly gig at Cato’s gave us a chance to work out material, and as soon as we started doing it I felt really comfortable,” Steinkoler says. “In the beginning it was a novelty, an experiment. We were learning what happens when you take away the harmony instrument.”

The main reason concept worked so well is because De La Cruz and Peterson are highly sympathetic players who enjoy each other’s company on and off the bandstand. Peterson was mostly known as an altoist and switched to baritone sax to provide Mo’Fone with the sonic heft and booting bass lines that give the combo such a full sound. De La Cruz composed the opening ’Fonology track “Jim’s Way” to provide Peterson with an opportunity to play alto in the group, while he swapped horns and picked up the unwieldy baritone sax.

A two-decade resident of West Berkeley, De La Cruz maintains a full roster of private students and also plays with Kevin Welch’s Brazilian inspired band Boca do Rio. Mo’Fone has provided a rare and invaluable forum for exploring different musical roles.

“We started out with Jim playing the bass and I would play the melody,” De La Cruz says. “But as the band matured we tried to exploit the two voices, creating the illusion that it’s a full band using counterpoint and writing techniques that make it sound like there’s more than two lines. Jim is such a great foil to work against. He and I have a lot of writing sessions together. It’s been super fun trying to come up with new ways to make create this big sound.”

Recommended gig:  Billy Buss in Berkeley

Billy Buss

Billy Buss: the BHS alum is playing several gigs locally

Boston trumpeter Billy Buss, Berkeley High class of 2006, returns to town to celebrate the release of his stellar debut recording Scenes From A Dream at Jupiter on Friday May 9 at 8 p.m., with a band featuring Santa Cruz-raised tenor saxophonist Jesse Scheinin, a rising force in New York. He also conducts an advanced improvisational technique workshop Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the JazzSchool) and plays Sunday night at Birdland Jazzista Social Club from 6-9 p.m., Michael Parayno’s last show in Berkeley before bringing his community confabs to North Oakland.

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. He lives in West Berkeley.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s recently launched Events Calendar. We encourage you also to submit your own events.

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  • deirdre

    Mo’Fone is Mo’Fun. Looking forward to the May 15 show.

  • guest

    Any relation to Moe Foner?

  • Andrew Gilbert

    An important update: Billy Buss’s Sunday performance isn’t the last one at the Berkeley incarnation of Birdland Jazzista Social Club. Berkeley guitarist John Schott is performing at BJSC on May 24 with his trio.