Keyboardist Jeff Babko usually plays on movie soundtracks, as a sideman for everyone from Larry Carlton to James Taylor, or in the late-night house band for The Jimmy Kimmel Show. On Mondo Trio, the Los Angeles-based musician steps to the fore with an unorthodox keyboards-saxophone-drums lineup and similarly varied bandmates. Saxophonist Jeff Coffin is a long-standing member of the serpentining Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta’s résumé (Jeff Beck, Sting, Frank Zappa) strays further than Babko’s.
The keyboardist’s opening composition, “Head Trauma,” even approximates Zappa’s rocking instrumental “Apostrophe.” Coffin switches to flute on Babko’s frenetic “Vote 4 Morals,” and the upshift in tempo suits Colaiuta. The drummer is a blur, showing a Tony Williams influence whether driving the main sections or soloing. Ditto “Five Before Happy Time,” a slower, off-timed groove in which he thunders over the vamp of Coffin’s sax and Babko’s keyboards.
Babko capably blends vintage instruments (Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Hammond) with synthesizers throughout, and Coffin impressively plays tenor, alto and soprano saxes, flute and bass clarinet. The only problem with Mondo Trio is that the disc is front-loaded.
The fourth tune, Coffin’s atmospheric “El Nino,” gets sleepy halfway through its overly long eight minutes. The disc can’t quite regain its early stride thereafter. Babko’s strong left-handed bottom never falters, but even latter highlights like his Flecktones-tinged romp “X Marks the Spot” might’ve been better-served by having a bassist for him to interact with. There’s no shortage of great playing by all three parties here, only shortages of song-sequencing and material that doesn’t follow in its own footsteps. But Mondo Trio is good enough to spark hope that this sideman continues to improve by continuing to lead.