Words by: Dennis Cook | Images from: www.jfjo.com
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey :: 04.10.08 :: Kuumbwa Jazz Center :: Santa Cruz, CA
There's a wondrous sense of disorientation to the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. Their blur of influences and marvelously disrespectful attitude towards genre restrictions often creates a mirage haze, a wavy line horizon where palm trees bend like Dali's clocks and belly dancers beckon us with swords drawn. Outside of consistently jaw dropping musicianship, it's unwise to expect anything from JFJO. Each new chapter requires one to bury their preconceptions in a deep hole and open up to the now. The band has rarely been as weirdly engaging as on their new album, Lil' Tae Rides Again (released April 8 on Hyena), and the touring experience behind this well-muscled, electronica-touched new music proved equally adventurous and sublimely satisfying.
JFJO doesn't make it easy for listeners, even longtime ones. Their own unflappable dedication to their muse(s) often sends them on wildly divergent explorations – one week a semi-traditional jazz trio in the McCoy Tyner mode, the next up to their asses in studio wizardry that'd make Aphex Twin giggle. Like Sybil, it's all part of one entity named "Jacob Fred" they build day-by-day, reading musical tea leaves to gauge where the Odyssey will wander next. Still, nothing could quite prepare us for black wizard cloaks, a fourth member wielding a Flying-V electric guitar or the fact that Reed Mathis didn't pick up his bass until two-thirds of the way into the first set, which was comprised of the entirety of Lil' Tae played in album sequence. While still somewhat tentative and in need of polishing, there was an immediate electricity to this new material that took less time than opener "Autumnal" to let you know this is where the heart and creative soul of this band is at today.
Built around the key jazz principles inherent in their name – intelligent improvisation, thoughtful composition and high instrumental skill – Lil' Tae also draws heavily from psychedelic wells like Boards of Canada and '70s Herbie Hancock as well as the weird, charged sound warping of Krautrock and more obscurely Terje Rypdal, Steve Tibbetts and other outsider-fusion explorers. Mathis pushed things along with lap steel and electric guitar, sparring with added multi-instrumentalist Peter Tomshany (whose accents and instigations added continual spice), as keyboardist Brian Haas moved the tectonic plates underneath everyone while simultaneously etching gossamer melodies in the seeming chaos. What keeps this from floating off is the crushing percussion of newest full-time member Josh Raymer, a very young but breathtaking drummer that recalls the off-kilter swing of Paul Motian tied to the brick breaking pow of Deep Purple's Ian Paice. Throw in some of Art Blakey's peacock streak in his lightning fills and bone rattling snare pops and you begin to get the picture. Without question, Raymer has affected Haas and Mathis, and all for the better. You could read their astonishment and pleasure in working with and against him. Raymer understands that if you want a piece of the sonic pie in Jacob Fred you need to get your fork in there – no one gives you anything here.
Reed Mathis by Greg Aiello
A white projection screen behind the quartet displayed animation, film footage and other stimulating randomness expertly chosen in real time by Adam Skapple, who sent us flying past Shangri-La, down below with shockingly green and red jellyfish, out into burnt orange canyons and impossibly green hills and back to earth amongst stone lions and Chinese pedestrians. In his hands, we were often upside down in the cosmos, adrift in twinkling stars, which added no small measure of beauty and whimsy to the experience.
"Whimsy" is a crucial element to this moment in JFJO. Their sense of play and childlike daring spilled off the stage, the four guys playing musical chicken under their dark hoods, daring the others to step up, to dance or laugh or tear your heart out, but do something real! Only a few days into the tour at this gig, the chemistry was palpable but the execution was a little wobbly in spots. Translating an entire new album to the live setting is daunting and the abrupt departure of a fifth member after one show in Tulsa added further complications. Still, there wasn't so much fumbling as a little awkwardness when they dove off a cliff or tried to wrangle everyone back to a main theme. I find growing pains like this exciting, a glimpse into the human beings that make this frequently alien music, and so did the majority of the audience.
By set's conclusion, I wondered if JFJO shouldn't consider holding late night "Lil' Tae Rides," a modern descendent of what the Merry Pranksters started, where Kool-Aid and brownies would most definitely be served. Close your eyes during these fresh (in all senses of the word) compositions and you discovered fractals crystallizing behind your eyelids. Open your eyes and you got druids with electrical instruments grooving in front of an ever-changing landscape. Cool all around and ripe for pre-dawn mischief. Festival organizers are put on notice.
Haas & Raymer by Greg Aiello
The second set threw the spotlight on the trio while Tomshany cooled his heels until encore time. Back in their familiar wheelhouse, JFJO reaffirmed Duke's old notion that "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." Like three chimps cavorting on greased vines, Raymer, Haas and Mathis engaged in instrumental acrobatics that just made you shake your head. Behind the house baby grand, Haas immediately reminded us what a devastating classically trained pianist he is, all the massive things one associates with Ahmad Jamal, Stanley Cowell, Chick Corea and other exalted keyboardists. Combined with one of the toughest rhythm sections going it was again clear that if they ever wanted to focus on jazz standards and safer music they'd hand Jacky Terrasson and his ilk their butts on the jazz club/festival circuit.
But, playing it safe isn't what Jacob Fred is about. It's about something more organic, more distressingly present, the gooey, agitated muck of Creation lobbed at listeners. While at times the second set was inviting enough that you almost felt warm jets caress your body, there were plenty of other moments where it sounded as if they were wrestling a great mammoth or seducing an electric eel, shape shifting and lighting up chakras as they put one foot in front of the other. They moved from volcanic outbursts to frozen winter lake calm during the compact set, and each transition felt natural and right.
What I have long loved about JFJO remains shockingly alive in them, despite lineup changes, other projects and no little wear 'n' tear in their personal lives. They continue to embrace beauty and chaos, dipping them in love and etching on a smile with their index finger that lets you know it's okay to laugh. From ragtime shuffles to modal pirouettes, they manage to make sense of this rainbow, for themselves and for those bearing witness. While the Lil' Tae material stretches the definition of jazz considerably, they still take time to honor their forbears, like bringing Tomshany back to play on Louis Armstrong's reefer anthem "Song of the Vipers," which they mutated nicely but in a way that rekindles the flame Satchmo lit long ago. A double shot of Beatles ("Happiness Is A Warm Gun" and "Dear Prudence") wrapped things up with a cheery bow. Bounteous spirit intact, the Odyssey continues apace.
JamBase | California
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