When the bass player didn't show up for a trio gig at Cato's Ale House seven years ago, drummer Jeremy Steinkoler and alto saxophonist Jim Peterson found themselves in something of a jam. To fill out the group's sound, leader Steinkoler phoned a friend who lived nearby, baritone saxophonist Larry De La Cruz. A bari ain't exactly a bass, but it's range was close enough for jazz.
"Typically bands are going to groove harder when they've got bass and drums together," the 37-year-old drummer said in the dining room of his El Cerrito home recently. As it turned out, the two saxophonists and drummer not only hit groove after funky groove that night, but they had such a good time that they've kept the group going ever since. Known as Mo'Fone, the all-instrumental trio has just released its second CD, Sling Shot on the Evander Music label, and the fun the musicians were having in the studio spills out of every track, especially their highly syncopated reinvention of Led Zeppelin's "Fool in the Rain," which is preceded on the disc by laughter. It's the only non-original tune of ten. "That whole session was just a laugh a minute," Steinkoler said. "We could have filled up three reels of tape with just the jokes we were making and the laughs we had."
Tenor man Dan Zinn adds a third sax to "Fool in the Rain." Tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis guests on another track, and sousaphonist Kirk Joseph of New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band joins in on two others. But even when Joseph isn't playing, Mo'Fone maintains a Big Easy bounce much of the time, thanks to Steinkoler's mastery of second-line parade beats.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Steinkoler was influenced early on by such modern jazz drummers as Max Roach and Elvin Jones. He and his friends made money as teenagers playing for tips in Central Park, though taxis that transported him and his drums between home and the park ate up most of his earnings. He became enamored of New Orleans R&B while attending the University of Michigan and learned to play the complex drum styles associated with Crescent City greats like Earl Palmer and Zigaboo Modeliste while a member of the East Bay band Hot Links in the mid-'90s.
Steinkoler stayed busy as a freelance musician throughout the '90s. "I got a little burned out playing most nights of the week and making very little," he recalled. "This was back when there was smoking in the bars. You'd come home reeking of smoke, and you'd have fifty bucks to show for it."
In 1993, he and guitarist Steve Gibson started BandWorks, a rock 'n' roll school in Oakland for kids and adults that puts players of different instruments together and teaches them how to perform in groups, with emphasis on song structure, dynamics, tempos, grooves, soloing, and showmanship. In the beginning, Steinkoler and Gibson taught the classes themselves. The school has become so successful, however, that it now has branches in San Rafael and Portland and some twenty instructors. A fourth branch is slated to open in San Jose this fall. Now an administrator, Steinkoker no longer teaches classes at the school, although he does have two-dozen private drum students.
Freed from the drudgery of freelance gigging, with a music education career providing security for himself, his wife, and two children, Steinkoler now places his playing focus on Mo'Fone. "I enjoy the extra freedom and the extra sonic space that I get to fill up because there's no bass and especially because there's no guitar or piano," he said. "You have to change the way you play. That's been fun for me, to be able to stretch out and figure out how much space I can fill in. When you add the bass back in, it frees me up in a different way because now I'm not responsible for holding down the bottom and I can be a little bit more rhythmically adventurous.
"The instrumentation lends itself to having fun," he added. "Jim has the freedom to move back and forth between the bass line and the harmony and the melody, and it's surprising. ... We're paying attention to each other all the time, and we can turn on a dime. Things go places that, probably with a bigger band, they wouldn't be able to go as readily. On gigs, we're always looking at each other and turning around and smiling and laughing, like, 'Oh, no you didn't!'"