Rented Mule full of ‘old fogies’ and ‘budding veterans’ of jazz
CLINTON – You only need to talk to D.A. Jones, the drummer and co-founder of the jazz group Rented Mule, for a few minutes before you realize he loves music and really loves to play it. He rattles off a library of musicians’ names and album titles in a steady stream, and his discussion of his group quickly veers back and forth between excited descriptions and sage-like journeyman wisdom. For him, Rented Mule doesn’t seem to be a band as much as an extension of his personality.
Rented Mule, based out of Philadelphia, Penn., is a collective of musicians who have all done hard time as session musicians and with a host of other performers, a list which includes Sun Ra, Bo Diddley, Natalie Cole, The Temptations, and many, many others. In a sense, the group has allowed them to stretch out and let loose, where before they sometimes had to keep in line, to be faithful to a recording, and also to receive a paycheck.
“Someone tells you, ‘Play this, bop bop bop,’ and you play ‘Bop bop bop,’ because you’re playing for a living, and that’s what you do, and that’s fine for that,” says Jones. “But with us, we try to keep it loose.”
The group was founded by Jones and bass player Dan Greenberg, and features Jason O’Mara on saxophones, Marcell Bellinger on trumpet, Pete McRae on guitar, and Camille G. Brown and Napoleon Black on keyboards and percussion respectively.
The group’s name comes from the saying, put in a variety of ways, which states that a rented mule is worked much harder by its handlers than an animal they actually owned. It’s an apt name for a group of players whose resumes all boast lengthy lists, and who always strive to bring excitement and energy to their playing.
“We want to have good music with great solos, and keep it up and exciting,” says Jones. “One of the things a lot of us have done is more traditional jazz and bebop gigs, and people just sit there, and it’s more low key. Improvising in jazz doesn’t have to be just all cerebral. We try to make it funky or danceable.”
A typical Rented Mule set list, Jones says, will be split equally between pre-arranged song structures and improvising off the songs themselves. Horn lines or other musical cues will be put in at certain intervals so each member knows where they are at in each piece, but the rest is left to chance and spur-of-the-moment gut instinct. Aiding them in finding these moments is the fact that the group is made up of older, more seasoned players, and younger, budding veterans, who balance each other out and each bring what they have to the table. Jones laughingly calls himself one of the group’s “old fogies,” but says the younger members fuel his playing.
“All of our guys are seasoned jazz players, but the energy comes from the young guys,” Jones insists. “Do they have a lot of the technique and knowledge of some of the older players? No, but they bring in enthusiasm and excitement, that brings an edge to the band, and I love it! And every time they play, they get better.”
Which is not to say the group can’t pull off a more laid-back cut: they are also adept at playing slower grooves with more mellow, sometimes mournful horn playing, the kind of songs perfect for accompaniment for those lonely moments in the dead of night, the kind of smoky, blue-tinged solitude that a jazz instrumental often conjures. But on the concept of what a traditional jazz band is, however, Jones is adamant.
“We are a jazz band in the real definition, not in the fact that most people think a real jazz band might be. The fact is, a real jazz band plays by improvising with each other. We do it in a high energy way that’s more funky. Well, I like to think it’s funky, but what do I know,” he says with a laugh.
An ardent supporter of jazz, Jones thinks that much of many kinds of music have their roots in the style, whether it is spiritual in nature or what the players are actually versed in. When prompted, he has no problem rattling off a variety of names who he thinks are helping to lead jazz into the future and yet uncharted territories.
“To be honest and truthful, I think most music is going to be more jazz-oriented,” he says thoughtfully. “When you listen to Top 40 on the radio, the more popular music, and even the smooth jazz, you can tell it’s very programmed, and very organized, and they made sure they wanted it to sound that way. Yet, when you go to the show, it’s nothing like that. You might laugh when I say it, but if you go see Beyonce, let me tell you… she has one of the best drummers out there, she has a tenor sax player who has a jazz album, a trumpet player who is an amazing jazz trumpet player. They follow the charts, but there’s parts of the show where Beyonce just lets them play, and they never do the same thing twice. That improv all comes from jazz.”
For Jones and his bandmates, music has many more areas to go and explore, and Rented Mule is aimed at being part of that tradition to move ever onward. It may be a long way away from playing “Bop bop bop,” but that’s the kind of group that Rented Mule is.
Rented Mule can be seen at the Clinton Art and Music Festival August 23, at 7:30 p.m. on the Clinton Village Green.
Life & Times of Utica
Don’t judge books by covers. I almost did and almost missed out on some finely treated jazz.
See this terrible cd cover? Well, maybe you don’t think it’s bad, but this combined with some of the song titles made me think I was going to get into hip hop jazz for some reason. Not liking hip hop beats at all, it was lucky my eye rested on their self-proclaimed “jazz/fusion” listing, because that is what I like.
We’ve got Don Jones on drums, Joel Kunreuther on guitar, Frank Williams on percussion, Todd Horton on horns, Jason Mescia on sax and Dan Greenberg on bass, and together they give out with a sympathetic, energetic live sound that will win you over from the first five seconds. I hear whispers of Mancini in the lazy “Unintentional Insanity” and I hear some intentional weirdness in the horn harmonies of “A Walk in the Park w/jones” coming from the Zappa camp.
And I’ve had this delightful instrumental cd on repeat play – for the last five hours. Staying power, folks.
BEST INDIE MUSIC OUT THERE
The jazz fusion enthusiasts known as Rented Mule call Philadelphia home, and their brand of jazz is heavily influenced by the jazz mixtures and hybrids of the mid to late 70’s. As some jazz musicians flirted with accessibility, some moved towards a lighter sound while others became more soulful and funky. This is a bit on the soulful and funky side of jazz. The guys in the band have played with a diverse range of artists over the years, and together they create a sound that is loose and tight at the same time, complete with horns, a fierce bassist, and the kind of musicianship that comes from experience. That funkiness shows up in “Double D”, coming off as if Weather Report and Return To Forever decided to jam with Tower Of Power and Bootsy Collins. “Thelonius Monster” grooves on the Steely Dan side of things, “Unintentional Insanity” would fit well by a jazz band on any late night talk show, and for some ultra stank funky doo doo vibes, there’s the pungent “Trout Sandwich”, with bassist Dan Greenberg digging deep with his thumb while the group (Don “D.A.” Jones on drums, Frank Williams on percussion, Jason Mescia on tenor sax, Todd Horton on trumpet, electric trumpet, and flugelhorn, and Joel Kunreuther on guitar) sound like Miles Davis jamming with Primus and Gov’t Mule, quite progressive in its approach compared to the rest of the album.
Some of the songs sound fairly standard in their arrangements, but branching out (as they do in “Trout Sandwich”) shows the true power of this band when they allow a groove to take over and each of them build amongst each other to create a really nasty sound (and that’s nasty in a good way).
“The Run-Off Groove”
“Rented Mule is an attractive Jazz/Fusion group which no doubt will be
well received by my younger listeners and create an interest in Jazz in general.”