Monster Mix

When a sullen gene-splicing researcher named Murray arrived late at the laboratory Monday morning and co-workers inquired about his tardiness and the bleakness of his mood, he had a startling explanation; "The homework ate my dog," Murray snarled.

You get what's commonly called a 'monster group' in the parlance of today's music scene by splicing together a standout guitarist from popular Group A, a drummer from Group B, and so on. Often, however, the parts are greater than the sum and spirits don't quite mesh.

That won't be the case when Son of Murray plays the Tinker Street Cafe on February 9th, promises drummer Peter O'Brien. Son of Murray is comprised of five sought-after studio and tour professionals with credentials galore and a core of musical chemistry with a history.

Rob Leon, often the first-call bassist for regional sessions work, arrived in the area in the late 70's as part of the Alan Harris Band, then being produced by Bob James as the only rock act on the jazz-oriented Columbia-Tapanzee label. The group's drummer, Mike Kimmel, had roots in Pine Hill and the upstate scene seemed an ideal place to locate, so they rented a mansion in which to live and rehearse.

"With wives and kids and everything, there was about 15 people on this trip," Leon recalled, "so we needed a huge house."

When the band broke up, Leon, a gifted guitarist, found that he had a lot of work offered to his abilities as a bass player and he gigged often with Betty McDonald, Marc Black, and other Woodstock acts for pick-up gigs on someone else's set-up.

"I didn't even own a bass," Leon smiled. "I borrowed equipment for a year and a half until I made enough on a tour with Eric Andersen to have a bass made for myself."

Season by season, Leon's reputation grew as he performed with the likes of Paul Butterfield, Jack DeJohnette, Robbie Dupree, Karl Burger, Happy and Artie Traum, and other internationally known names. At one point, he was simultaneously in eleven bands, gigging his frets off. He played on the tv pilot of Crime Story, a project Todd Rundgren took on for Miami Vice producer, Michael Mann. Leon also plays on Warren Bernhardt's recent Family Album, The Band's Jericho, Orleans' live CD, an acclaimed John Hall album released in Japan, and others. As part of The Dolphins, Leon has appeared at virtually all of the major Europeon musical festivals, from Finland to Nice to the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague. In March, he'll be off on his fourth European tour with folksinger Melanie.

While Leon's on the overseas road, his "favorite drummer of all time," Peter O'Brien, will be touring the States with Rory Block. "Being able to play with (O'Brien) is a real honor for me," Leon said of the percussionist he met here in the late 80's and discovered had attended the same NYC high school. "We think a lot alike. We're like homeboys. I'm an only child but if there's someone out there who'd be my brother, he'd be him."

Equally in demand for sessions work, Orleans drummer O'Brien, who's played with Roy Buchanan, Edgar Winter and many other rock stars as well as jazzsters like Nick Brignola, and Dave Holland Quartet saxophonist Eric Person, is the pivot point of Son of Murray. Before moving to Woodstock, O'Brien kept beat for the Manhattan-based Uptown Swing band which featured guitarist supreme, Dave Lavender, and vocalist Tim Lawless.

Lawless has recorded with Diana Ross, Lester Chambers, Robbie Dupree, Lita Ford, and others and, like the other pros in the group, is a busy studio musician called in for record sessions and major advertizing jingle work.

You've also heard keyboardist Mike Mancini on ads for Pepsi and other major companies as well as on film scores. He's also been musical director for the Shirelles and plays in LaBamba and the Hubcaps, a hot combo featuring horns from the Conan O'Brien Band and Bruce Springsteen's band.

Lavender's credits include recording and touring with Randy Hunter, Joyce Simms, Exit Nine and others along with his film and ad experience. He was in Five Bucks For Gas with Andy Snitzer, a saxophonist now touring with the Stones and Bernie Davis's band. (Davis has drummed for Steve Winwood, Kool & the Gang, Jonathan Butler, Roberta Flack, etc.) He's also played with the Drifters, the Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and so on, trailing credentials out of a battered suitcase.

Leon, Lawless and O'Brien began teaming as The Chubby when Tim moved to Woodstock a year ago and the plot thickened as O'Brien continued to spot down to the City to gig with Lavender, who's never played here.

"Dave's a real funny Brooklyn kind of guy who has a habit of calling anybody and nobody in particular 'Murray'," O'Brien revealed, adding that Lavender is unaware of how the group is being billed. "He's an extremely great strat player. One of my favorite guitarists, period. Whether I've worked with him or not, he's just real exciting to listen to. I've learned a lot in terms of groove playing from Dave, just with the parts he plays; a master funk player and great soloist, he's the kind of guy who makes the whole rhythm section lock."

Unlike a lot of typical play-a-night groups whose composition is based more on availability than compatibility, O'Brien pledges sets by a rehearsed band with carefully chosen material above the common fare of "the thrown-together Band Z at Tinker Street playing the same old tunes."

"The appeal for us as band members is to be able to stretch out on some great material. Obscure funk, r&b and blues covers but not anything you'd normally hear, as well as some originals of Dave's and possibly Mike's. This will be a special night."

There's one caution, though. If you plan on attending this meeting of seasoned freelance professionals jelling a monster, leave the dog at home.

-Irv Yarg