Given his astonishingly varied and accomplished music career, the kickoff track from Jeff Babko’s fresh new release Crux can be just about anything, and it’d likely be good. And, voila, it is.
This keyboardist’s most visible role is as a composer, arranger and performer on the Jimmy Kimmel Show, and logically, he’s scored movies, too (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Garden State, Super Bad, etc.). He’s also filled in for David Paich in Toto, co-leading a straight jazz band with Toto drummer Simon Phillips, gigging/recording with James Taylor, Larry Carlton, Sheryl Crow, Julio Iglesias, Steve Lukather and Joe Cocker — he’s on Cocker’s newest CD, Hard Knocks.
Crux, like other Babko records, falls into the jazz fusion category, but also like prior records, it’s a good way to take in all his abilities as a skilled keyboardist, composer, bandleader and arranger. And Babko’s wide respect in the music business affords him the ability to surround himself with talent commiserate with the project. For the latest one, he’s corralled bassist Tim Lefebrvre, drummer Matt Chamberlain, saxophonist Ben Wendel and trumpeters Walt Fowler and Mark Isham. It’s an electric jazz affair, but not overly so; the rhythm section often says “rock,” but the musicianship and Babko’s heady horn arrangements and harmonies with its interesting complexities point to jazz. Weather Report, The Yellowjackets, Step Ahead and the Brecker Brothers all figure in as inspirations at one time or another for this assorted mix of consistently better-than-average fusion.
One of the most appealing cuts is that first one, “The International Client,” one where drummer Gene Coye is a key reason, with his 7/8 pace that sets Babko’s modern groove figure on its end, putting the accents in different spots and pushing it along with lots of fills and cymbal splashes. Babko also gives Wendel and Fowler prominent roles with one of his punchy charts, and Fowler, Wendel and Babko himself on piano do a roundtable of solos, only a couple of bars per turn, forcing everyone to give their best phrases right off the top.
Coye gets rewarded with his own standalone solo during the bridge that ends the song. Contemporary, dynamic and well-performed, Jeff Babko’s ”The International Client” affirms that one of contemporary music’s most demanded behind-the-scenes keyboard players can be just as alluring when he’s the guy up front.