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Three-Ring Circus Maximus

For avant-garde instrumental progressive funk jazz lovers, Drop Trio's the only game in town

Ian Varley does not have any children.

This is readily apparent by the way the keyboardist for Drop Trio unthinkingly drops the F-bomb in the lobby of Monterey's Little Mexico, oblivious to the wee small girl with her mother paying for their taco dinners only feet away. He ismarried, though, and his red beard -- which I heard was approaching ZZ Top starter-kit length -- has been neatly trimmed. "I succumbed to wifely pressure," he offers. But he still can grow face fur that most men can only fantasize about. Damn.

Drummer Mike Blattel and bassist Ron "Nino" Batista soon arrive. Along with Varley, we retire to a corner booth. There, over potent margaritas and Elmer's glue-like quesadillas, they discuss life as the only "avant-garde instrumental progressive funk jazz" act in Houston. Try finding a shelf for that category at the record store.

Drop Trio jokes that their next CD will be called 
Playing to the Backs of Audiences.
Drop Trio jokes that their next CD will be called Playing to the Backs of Audiences.

But one bin you'll find in every record store is the one marked "soundtracks." And chances are that all of those bins will have a copy of the soundtrack to the new Cedric the Entertainer vehicle Johnson Family Vacation. And on that CD you'll find a Drop Trio song. The band has the Knowles family to thank for this little coup. One of the movie's co-stars, Solange Knowles (Beyoncé's little sister), sings a track on it called "Freedom" over the Drop Trio tune "Lefty's Alone." Seems that the younger Knowles caught a couple of the DT's shows, picked up a CD, became enchanted with the track and wrote some lyrics.

"It turned out much better than we expected. We thought she was just going to do a sample," says Varley. Blattel points out that the tune appears just before a Barry White track. "We're in the lovemaking section…awesome!"

Making love, stomping on the dance floor or just chillin' -- Drop Trio's music is adaptable to any of those activities. One can get lost listening to their excellent CD Big Dipper, finding something new in it with each spin -- which works out, considering the trio's diverse group of fans. "Some people come out to focus on us, and some just like it as background music, which is fine," says Varley, who plays Rhodes piano and a Hammond B-3 organ. In fact, they joked about calling a live CD Playing to the Backs of Audiences.

"We also have a desire to push experimental limits," Batista says. "But we know that's not for everybody. We've gotten into trouble for playing too loud at jazz clubs…the funk just comes out with the heavy beat."

In fact, the band never plays a song the same way twice, which, along with their groove-oriented sound, has led to happy huggies from the local jam-band community. "Those fans are very open-minded musically," Varley says. Of course, there are times when the staid jazz and happy hippie worlds collide and create friction -- as when two spin dancers were ejected from a DT gig at the posh downtown Twelve Spot for not wearing shoes.

Worlds also collide within their music. A major influence on Drop Trio's sound, which isn't always apparent, is prog-rock. All three are huge fans. So while "funk jazz" captures the general aesthetic of their sound, there are also plenty of intricate key changes, multi-melody parts and time-signatures shifts. "We can make odd time signatures danceable, but we're still dorks," Blattel says.

One shift Drop Trio won't be making is becoming a band with a vocalist -- despite the fact that "about 100" people have come up to them at gigs and begged for a shot. "We hate hearing that," Varley says, even though he admits that commercially, it would be a positive step. One band friend, singer James Garcia, wanted the nonexistent slot badly. When it was stressed that the name of the group is Drop Trio, Varley says, Garcia came back later and said, "Okay, then I'll change my name to Drop."

Appearing now at our booth is Sergio, a gold-toothed waiter who asks if we want the "daily special" margarita. ("Only 95 cents more, and you get two extra shots!") But the band members -- all of whom have day jobs -- decline. Sergio looks puzzled, as if he can't quite understand why we would turn down such an obviously more expedient route to obliteration. "Only 95 cents more!" he repeats, to no avail.

Drop Trio formed in 2002 when a fresh-from-San Francisco Varley put a note on the Jazz Houston Web site looking for jam buddies. Blattel, who'd had a similar notice up for years without a bite, got in touch right away. After finding some musical chemistry, Blattel brought in his buddy Batista.

Batista had never even heard funk jazz until that point, except for during his bachelor party at a Medeski, Martin and Wood show. (Those wildmen!) "There was something about the energy of [that type of] music that appealed to me," he remembers. "And there was definitely a vibe in our first practices."

They self-released some EPs to hand out at shows, then recorded Big Dipper at Sugar Hill Studios early last year. "It's one of the best CDs ever recorded, right after the debut by Wilson Phillips," Blattel notes proudly.

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