Out in Berkeley: Mo’Fone — distilling the essence of funk

Larry De La Cruz, Jim Peterson and Jeremy Steinkoler (left to right), who make up Mo'Fone, playing Berkeley on Friday night

By Andrew Gilbert

When it comes to funk, less is often more. The band Mo’Fone puts that insight into insistently syncopated practice on just about every piece. Led by El Cerrito drummer Jeremy Steinkoler, Mo’Fone, which performs a late set Friday at Michael Parayno’s singular Birdland Jazzista Social Club, is a stripped down combo featuring Larry De La Cruz on alto sax, clarinet and flute and Jim Peterson on baritone sax and bass clarinet.

Veteran reed players with extensive jazz and R&B credits, they seamlessly shift roles on each tune, sliding from riffing support to propulsive solos. Somehow, the trio captures the kinetic power and sonic punch of a funk horn section and a brass band, but distilled to its essence.

The band‚Äôs first album,¬†2003‚Äôs ‚ÄúSurf‚Äôs Up,‚ÄĚ introduced Steinkoler‚Äôs surprisingly effective minimalist¬†concept. As impressive as its full sound was the trio‚Äôs intriguing repertoire,¬†which ranged from ‚ÄúBlack Market‚ÄĚ by the fusion supergroup Weather Report, and¬†‚ÄúAfrican Market‚ÄĚ by South African piano legend Abdullah Ibrahim to Earl King‚Äôs¬†Mardi Gras classic ‚ÄúBig Chief.‚ÄĚ

When Mo‚ÄôFone resurfaced five years later with¬†‚ÄúSling Shot,‚ÄĚ New Orleans had moved to the center of its sound, with a guest¬†appearance by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band sousaphone master Kirk Joseph.

At its best, funk is serious business, requiring discipline, precision and the blues-infused knowledge that pleasure and grief are two sides of the same coin. That’s the spirit that animates Mo’Fone, and it’s no coincidence that much of the music flows from birth and death.

On ‚ÄúBee,‚ÄĚ a tune inspired by Steinkoler‚Äôs¬†experience of fatherhood, he shows the band is also fully capable of waxing¬†lyrical. Throughout the album, Steinkoler does a masterly job of directing¬†Mo‚ÄôFone from the drums. Rather than trying to fill up all the space available¬†with the absence of a piano, guitar or bass, he leaves plenty of room for the¬†music to breath.¬†As much as the powerful grooves, Steinkoler‚Äôs music is built¬†on catchy melodic hooks that keep snapping back into your memory.

While the¬†trio‚Äôs visibility has waxed and waned over the past decade, Steinkoler and¬†crew seems to be ramping up again this summer, culminating in a coveted booking¬†at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September. That‚Äôs good news, ‚Äėcause there‚Äôs no¬†combo on the scene that sounds like Mo‚ÄôFone, a little band that delivers mo‚Äô¬†funk, mo‚Äô sound and mo‚Äô fun.

Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.