With the quirky, lighthearted title of one of the key tracks on their debut album PLAN R on Moondo Music, keyboardist DANIEL STEIN and guitarist STUART ZIFF may be intent on telling us “You Can’t Be Serious.” Yet these L.A.-based musical vets are in fact dead serious when it comes to having a blast in the studio and forging a dynamic synergy of the jazz, blues, funk, and soul music that has sparked their passion for decades. 

After years of success behind the scenes as sidemen for other artists, teaching at Musician’s Institute, and engaging in everything from jingle writing and hit songwriting to creating popular music libraries, the two unleash their full creative coolness as R FOR ROMEO – colorfully named after a memorable line (“It decodes as Wing Attack R. R for Romeo”) in Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove, one of Stein and Ziff’s favorite films. Likewise, the album title refers to the film’s emergency war plan in which a lower echelon commander may order nuclear retaliation after a sneak attack.  

You don’t have to be hip to the Dr. Strangelove lingo to groove on the eight sizzling, soulful, and edgy tracks the duo creates with top L.A. studio cats, bassists RENE CAMACHO (War) and TRAVIS CARLTON (Larry Carlton, Sara Bareilles), trumpeter CHRIS TEDESCO (Christina Aguilera, Michael Bublé), drummers KEVIN STEVENS (Duane Eddy), FRED DINKINS (Al Green, Stevie Wonder), and RICK LATHAM (Edgar Winter, Juice Newton), and percussionist MARCOS REYES (War, Los Lobos). Stein, who infuses PLAN R with masterful performances on piano and retro instruments like clavinet, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3, Wurlitzer and Mini Moog, says, “This is the kind of music we’ve always wanted to make.”

Based in Los Angeles for many years, Stein and Ziff first worked together in the 80s in New York City at a time when they were developing their individual careers. As members of the backing band for Atlantic pop/R&B artist Martee LaBow, they enjoyed opening for everyone from the legendary Gregg Allman to the quintessential 80s hitmakers Wang Chung. Stein and Ziff went on to develop incredibly diverse, individual careers. Stein become a top jingle writer, composer for scripted and reality TV shows, and co-founder of the successful independent music library Music Box. Ziff worked as a session musician and songwriter in NYC and Nashville (an era which included co-writing David Ball’s Grammy nominated country hit “Thinkin’ Problem”) before moving to LA, where he has been guitarist for the legendary band War for the past 20 years. Both are also esteemed instructors at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, where Ziff teaches blues guitar, slide guitar and performance workshops in different styles and Stein teaches piano performance, songwriting, and synthesis.  Daniel has also developed curriculum for MI Online, including a course called “Keyboard Gear Mastery.” 

Re-introduced by a mutual friend in 2018, Stein and Ziff hit it off again creatively and began working on short library music vignettes for use in an independent movie a buddy of Ziff’s had made. In September 2019, they started working on a full-on album. Once they wrote “You Can’t Be Serious,” a freewheeling R&B/jazz/rock fusion scorcher in the Hendrix/Jeff Beck vein, they were hooked. The two wrote the rest of the tracks starting a few months into the pandemic, which naturally prompted them to title one of the tunes “Lockdown,” a blazing, funky, high-energy spacey-blues jam to reflect their need to break free from the confinement. 

Ziff says, “Daniel was the only human I saw for a year,” which helped the two develop an organic, intuitive flow that represents something of a Venn diagram of their musical tastes. Stein grew up on the Philly soul of his hometown and loved the vibe of the Richard Tee/Steve Gadd 70s jazz-funk band Stuff. Ziff (whose guitars include the Gibson ES-335, Fender Stratocaster and Fender Telecaster) is a native of Buffalo and an inductee of that city’s Music Hall of Fame. He loved the Beatles and the Stones but ultimately embraced funk, R&B, and blues as his trademark jam.

PLAN R begins with the second song the duo wrote, the reggae-tinged, Steely Dan-ish “Checkmate,” a power ballad driven by Ziff’s fiery electric guitar, Stein’s Rhodes and Tedesco’s jazzy trumpet which evolved from a riff off a technological mistake, where an unusual chord change occurred while the duo was playing with an effects pedal. Penned by Ziff and Travis Carlton, the gritty, edgy shuffle groove-driven “Go Play in the Street” is the sole song on the album to feature a modern drum loop, a la Snarky Puppy. Ziff makes great use of his Vox wah-wah pedal. Following the aforementioned “Lockdown,” R for Romeo heads towards “Midtown” for a seductive, meditative, and atmospheric blues adventure, then colors itself “Blue” on a moody ballad featuring Ziff’s crying electric guitar and one of Stein’s sparkling Rhodes solos. 

Named after a classic Jackie Gleason rant from The Honeymooners, “Blabbermouth” – the original band name the duo had chosen before realizing others had beaten them to it – is a blistering, action packed, wah-wah and spacey synth solo fired explosion that seriously qualifies as the greatest 70s cop show theme song ever written, just 45 years after Aaron Spelling could have used it!  After “You Can’t Be Serious,” Stein and Ziff get down to police business, buoyantly and feistily tackling the theme to a classic 70’s cop show (and one of the best sitcoms ever), Barney Miller, appropriately dubbing it “Barney’s Groove” for the way they expand beyond the familiar bassline and melody. 

“The music on PLAN R is a true expression of our musical souls, representing all of our favorite styles,” says Stein. Ziff adds, “I’ve spent my whole career being a sideman and songwriter for other great artists but have never created music that was just mine. It’s a pure reflection of our tastes, with infectious grooves and melodies we had a blast sinking our teeth into.”