My favorite album of the year by far is 'Surf's Up' (Evander Music) by the extraordinary trio Mo'Fone, an East Bay band featuring drummer Jeremy Steinkoler and saxophonists Larry De La Cruz and Jim Peterson, who alternate on alto and baritone. I was hooked from the first track, a buoyant, almost giddy version of Weather Report's 'Black Market,' with De La Cruz's surging bari replacing Jaco Pastorius' lithe basswork.
The group came together through serendipity about two years ago when a bassist didn't show up for Steinkoler's gig at Cato's Ale House in Piedmont. De La Cruz lives nearby, so he came to the rescue at the last minute, joining Peterson for an unusual two-saxophone and drums trio. "We had so much fun playing, we said, 'Let's do that again," Steinkoler said. "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. I wasn't missing bass or rhythm guitar. It gave me a chance to use the bass drum in a different role."
Steinkoler's orchestral approach to the trap set is thrilling. He's a whirlwind of activity, filling up empty spaces without sounding busy. But what makes 'Surf's Up' such an exhilarating ride is its range of material. From Earl King's Mardi Gras classic 'Big Chief' and Abdullah Ibrahim's savanna pastoral 'African Market' to Billy Cobham's funk-laden 'Crosswinds' and John Scofield's intricately grooving 'Kool,' Mo'Fone proves it's the biggest little band on the scene. On each piece, the trio finds ingenious ways of creating a full, multitextured, hard swinging sound. "It starts with one of us hearing a tune and imagining it in a different way, a combination of melody and bass line, and then we don't need no stinkin' chords,' Steinkoler said. "Sometimes we'll come in with a tune you wouldn't think would work. How can you play 'Big Chief' without the piano? Jim figures out parts he can fill up, weaving back and forth between bass parts and harmony. It kind of fools your ear. We've tried 'Black Dog' by Led Zeppelin, and we're dong 'Manic Depression' at the CD release."