Like Gang of Four, which is now essentially two guys, Garage a Trois has a band name that’s just too good to change when it’s no longer numerically accurate. The group only remained a trio for a short time after drummer Stanton Moore launched it as a 1999 side project, with guitarist Charlie Hunter and saxophonist Skerik. The current quartet subtracts Hunter and adds synth man Marco Benevento and percussionist Mike Dillon, and with the expanded lineup comes a broader sound. No longer just a vehicle for grooves and improvs, Garage a Trois now hinges on strong compositions that draw from tiki-lounge exotica and mid-’60s crime jazz. It’s the sound of John Barry and Martin Denny going on a funky bender.
Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil, the band’s fourth album (second with this lineup) is its most studio-driven set. Solos are downplayed, tracks are kept to a tidy four-minute average, and the most is made of sound- layering possibilities. Benevento often plays a Brian Eno-type role, adding atmospheric wind to the swaggering “Thumb,” and looping and echoing Skerik’s sax on “Dark Bogul.” But the rhythm tracks are non-programmed, and Moore’s drumming remains a joy to hear, whether he’s adding cymbal accents on the surprisingly pretty “Chimp & Flower,” or pushing straight ahead on “Resentment Incubator,” whose heavy baritone sax harks back to vintage Morphine.
The lack of guitar makes the band get more sonically creative, with a mix of sax, vibes and analog synths. When they echo ‘70s fusion it’s not the usual suspects. Ever hear Shamal, the terrific album that European prog-rock band Gong made after dropping its singer and adding a percussion section? Neither have most people, but the sound of “Omar”—part Indonesian gamelan, part arena- rock riffage—makes me suspect that a well-worn copy is buried somewhere in the Trois’ garage.