Three-Ring Circus Maximus

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 is married, 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.

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.

Batista took a leave of absence and was briefly replaced by Marc Reczek. Batista returned, but he'll be leaving again when his daughter is born. Batista's pretty torn up about having to leave the band. "It's hard and very bittersweet, because the band isn't going to stop, and I understand that," he says, staring down at the table. "I really would like to come back…but I can't predict it. But they might have something going on and they need to go forward."

All three are extremely excited about their next CD, Leap, which they promise will be "completely different." Rather than going into Sugar Hill with written and rehearsed material, they simply walked in, set up, punched the "record" button and jammed for two hours straight.

The idea for the freewheeling session came to them in their van (in between rounds of Batista's obsessive Beatles trivia games) somewhere between Houston and Lubbock. "It's much more experimental," Varley says, and a rough mix of the first half-hour certainly bears this claim out. In addition to some more familiar sounds, there are songs of odd rhythms and squeaks (à la Fantômas). Instruments fade in and drop out unexpectedly, and free-floating keyboard space-rock drifts over heavy and hypnotic plunks and thumps. Varley notes that people for whom they've played the work-in-progress have only one question: Where'd you get all the weed you must have been smoking? For the record, Varley says the band recorded stone cold sober -- and in the morning, at that.

Unfortunately, one of the people the band wanted most to hear it won't be able to: local music promoter Julie De Rossi, who was killed by a drunk driver March 17. "She was a very good friend. There were many gigs of ours when she was the audience," Varley says slowly. "She loved what we did and was a very…I don't know…supportive figure. Her death is an indescribable loss to the Houston music community." (Drop Trio memorializes their friend in their live shows by playing a twisted cover of a De Rossi favorite, Destiny's Child's "Survivor.")

Sergio has been to the table again to inquire if "everything was okay," and now it's the manager's turn to ask the same question, somewhat more impatiently at that. We look around to find that we are the only residentes of Little Mexico left, and that a small army of waitresses is busily sweeping the floors. As we get up to leave and the bill is paid ("Only six margaritas?" the manager asks incredulously. Hey, I said they were potent!), Blattel has the last word on the road ahead for Drop Trio.

"Our future," he intones gravely, "is to conquer the world of instrumental funk jazz!"

So look out, competitors to the title -- um, wherever you are…

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero