Like other Los Angeles musicians who spend a lot of time as guns-for-hire, keyboardist Jeff Babko may not be a name you'll recognize, but chances are you've heard him. Whether it's with the house band of ABC's The Jimmy Kimmel Show, touring with Robben Ford or James Taylor, or recording with Larry Carlton or Tim McGraw, Babko is a true musical chameleon. So what does a well-rounded player like Babko do when left to his own designs? Mondo Trio may not be the entire answer, but it's a grand place to start.
Babko teams up with woodwind multi-instrumentalist Jeff Coffin, of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones fame, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, whose list of credentials is even longer than Babko's. It's an explosively spontaneous and hard-blowing session that's got the energy of fusion but delves into everything from funk to free, energetic swing to fiery irregular meters and even a hint of progressive rock. The reference points are many, but despite its lack of a guitarist there's no question that the raw potency of Tony Williams Lifetime Emergency! (Polydor, 1969), figures largely into the equation.
Babko's remarkable ear for texture, expanded even further by Coffin's integration of processing with his array of saxophones, bass clarinet and flute, gives the trio a sound much bigger than one would expect. Coffin has plenty of freedom with Fleck, but he's never played with such reckless abandon, rendering his work with the intrepid banjoist a little on the polite side. From the nearly unrecognizable sound of his processed horn on his own "Ride" to Babko's modal burner "Vote 4 Morals," where the softer tone of Coffin's flute solo feels completely in context with Colaiuta's tumultuous drumming, he's simply never sounded this good or unfettered.
Babko's growling B3, sounds at times like how Keith Emerson might have sounded, had he chosen a path other than the bombast of Emerson, Lake & Palmerand had he employed a drummer with the kind of strong timing that Colaiuta maintains throughout. Though Colaiuta gets precious little solo space, he's an absolutely equal part of the three-way conversation in much of Mondo Trip.
The fitting maelstrom of Coffin's temporally elastic "El Nino" is one of Mondo Trio's highlights if only because it's so unexpected. There's a melody and a set of changes, but the manner in which the trio navigates them is open-ended and surprisingly free for what would largely be considered a fusion outing. Babko's Rhodes work here demonstrates a broader vernacular shared by all.
Captivating from start to finish, Mondo Trio demonstrates a broad reach that's the result of three players who've spent a lot of time in a variety of contexts. It's also another winner from Abstract Logix, which may be a relatively fledgling label but has so far demonstrated unerring instincts in the projects it's chosen to get behind.
Track Listing: Head Trauma; Vote 4 Morals; Five Before Happy Time; El Nino; Akimbo; Ride; X Marks the Spot; Young Dr. Jung; Love Theme from Mondo Trio.
Personnel: Jeff Babko: Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Hammond B3, synthesizers, noises; Jeff Coffin: tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, flute, percussion; Vinnie Colaiuta: drums, percussion, cymbals.
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