In his capacity as resident keyboardist with the house band on ABC’ s late night “Jimmy Kimmel Show,” Jeff Babko has had the opportunity to back up a plethora of musical guests from George Benson and Al Jarreau to Leann Rimes, Joe Walsh, Isaac Hayes, Hall & Oates and Chaka Khan. As a valued, in-demand sideman, Babko has also toured and recorded with a wide-ranging list of artists including country star Tim McGraw, Latin crooner Julio Iglesias, Latina percussion star Sheila E, smooth jazzer Rick Braun, pop star James Taylor, folk troubador Peter Himmelman, rocker Steve Lukather, fusion drummer Simon Phillips, funnyman Martin Short and jazz guitar greats Robben Ford and Larry Carlton. He has also racked up some impressive movie credits, having played on such recent films as “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Wedding Planner,” “Garden State,” “Two for the Money” and “Made.” But in spite of all that musical diversity, it’s safe to say that the Los Angeles-based keyboardist has never before done anything quite like Mondo Trio.
Essentially an experimental vehicle allowing Babko to delve into some of the more subversive aspects of his multi-faceted musicality, this renegade trio offering is also a brilliant showcase for all-world drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, who is turned loose on these nine tracks with a vengeance, and also for the audaciously adventurous saxophonist Jeff Coffin. Together these three highly creative musical forces push the envelope on funk, fusion and organ trio jazz originals with some cathartic, scintillating results.
” This band represents a release for me,” says gifted keyboardist who began classical training at age five and later studied jazz at the University of Miami. “It’s so different for us. We don’t get a chance to play this kind of music in each of our commercial situations but we really had fun doing it.”
While the three musicians may travel in different orbits — Babko in his Los Angeles niche of the Kimmel Show, the studio scene and the Baked Potato, Coffin as a road warrior with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Colaiuta as one of the world’s most sought-after drummers for international tours and recordings — the stars finally aligned long enough for them to go into the studio and track this session in just a couple of days. “I played with Vinnie a little bit in Robben Ford’ s band and I met Jeff recently on this obscure masters recital for a mutual friend of ours in Iowa,” says Babko. “I’ d been familiar with his playing, primarily through Bela’ s records but also through his own recordings as a leader, which I thought were really interesting. When I first heard Jeff play, his sound just blew me away. I remember the first note he played was just enormous and beautiful and so original. I immediately loved it. Jeff is so creative and open, so excited and positive about playing. His energy is just amazing and I knew I wanted to play with him.”
” And I also knew I wanted to find an excuse to record with Vinnie and hear him play in a freer situation that was not a typical L.A. session or a slick thing. I know that Vinnie was influenced by Tony Williams and Elvin Jones and I wanted to hear that side of him. So I thought, “Why not play with both of them?” Once we found the time to do it, the session went exactly as I had hoped. By the time we got in the studio, everyone was just really amped to kind of create. And it was just kind of easy.”
They open Mondo Trio with an in-your-face salvo entitled “Head Trauma.” A humungous low-end groover anchored by Babko’ s heavily effect Fender Rhodes bassline and Colaiuta’s slamming second line beat, this funky manifesto features Coffin’ s use of bass clarinet and tenor sax with an octave pedal to fatten up the bottom.
” Vote 4 Morals” is a frantic organ trio jam that triggers memories of Tony Williams Lifetime with the great Larry Young on Hammond B-3. “That was definitely a primary influence,” admits Babko, “but with flute on top and with the guys involved, it takes on something else.” Vinnie unleashes on the kit with ferocious abandon on this bombastic thrasher.
The funky “Five Before Happy Time” has Babko dusting off his clavinet chops. “I remember going into a local music store with my father when I was a kid and there was a clavinet sitting there. I didn’t know why, but I loved it immediately. The sound of it was so cool. I’ ll never forget that first moment where I thought, “This is such a soulful instrument.” The way the strings are set up, it’s such a different animal for a keyboard player and it has such a different resonance. It’s not ringy at all and it’s not sustained or necessarily pretty at all. It’ s more rhythmic and kind of inherently funky, which is something that Herbie Hancock explored with the Headhunters and Billy Preston got into on his instrumental hit ‘Out of Space.’ I really loved that about the clavinet.”
Coffin’s “El Nino” opens with a spacious “In A Silent Way” kind of vibe before turning Vinnie loose on the kit; like the calm before the storm. Babko’s “Akimbo” is a surging organ-fueled vehicle that recalls Jan Hammer’s work with guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette on the ’70s fusion classic Timeless. “I was a huge fan of that record,” says Babko. “It was such a different sounding organ record because Jan is not your typical organist. That different kind of alternative organ trio stuff has always captured my ear, whether it was Tony Williams Lifetime or Timeless or Larry Young’s Unity.” This throbbing, turbulent jam also features Coffin stretching in a Middle Eastern vein on soprano sax before pulling off the Rahasaan Roland Kirk trick of playing two horns simultaneously. Babko and Colaiuta also get into some aggressive, free-spirited exchanges at the tag.
” Ride” is a Meters-inspired funk vamp that bears the stamp of organist Art Neville. “Art is a huge influence,” says Babko. “I just love his use of space and where he puts the time and everything. He’s the cat.”
” X Marks The Spot” is the jazziest offering here, fueled by Babko’s walking left-hand basslines and Colaiuta’s irrepressible swing factor. The eccentric B section here, marked by some bits of comical tempo shifting, was inspired by Thelonious Monk. Coffin and Vinnie also engage in an explosive alto sax-drums breakdown on this burner. “It ends up being a free blowing vehicle for Jeff, who loves to blow in that kind of free setting,” says Babko. “I love the spirit of that song.”
” Young Doctor Jung” has Coffin nimbly switching from bass clarinet to soprano sax on top of Vinnie’s kinetic groove. As the piece develops, Colaiuta bears down on the kit in what turns out to be perhaps the most outstanding drums showcase on the album. “When you get Vinnie in a situation where feels comfortable and he just owns the material, the intensity of his playing is pretty frightening,” says Babko.
The collection closes on a spacious note with the palette cleanser “Love Theme From Mondo Trio.” Says Babko, “It’s the release from the tension that might’ve occured from listening to the rest of the record. Even though it doesn’t stay super mellow, there’s an openness to it, or a little less hyper, perhaps.”
The sound of Vinnie’s drums is very present in the mix throughout Mondo Trio, grounding the session with resounding authority. As Babko explains, “That comes from the engineer, Niko Bolas. He works on mostly rock records by people like Neil Young and Keith Richards. He would be considered a rock producer but he knows Vinnie real well and has worked with Vinnie for years. And so I knew he would get a great sound on his drums for this project. Initially we told him, ‘We don’t want this to be a safe recording. We don’t want a pretty sounding jazz ride cymbal sound. Let’s get it to be raw and let’s capture the live energy of the session.’ And I knew that given Niko’s attitude and where he comes from sonically, he would be able to get that. And a lot of guys might want to have the drums play a more supportive role, but here it’s really three equal voices.”
Those three voices combine for one resounding burst of kinetic energy and inspired playing on the volatile jam-oriented Mondo Trio.
— Bill Milkowski
Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to Jazz Times, Jazziz, Bass Player, Modern Drummer and Absolute Sound magazines. He is also the author of “JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius” (Backbeat Books).