By: Trevor Pour
Before I was able to put pen to paper – or fingers to keys, I suppose – and write this review for Winterwood (released for free download in January), I was compelled to watch an archival video of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey from the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, recorded in early 2003. The performance in question features Reed Mathis strumming upright acoustic bass for the entirety of the set, with Brian Haas at the baby grand piano and Jason Smart in calm control at the drum kit. In essence, I wanted to revisit JFJO's earlier days in order to put Winterwood in proper context. But instead, I found myself focused on how I miss the contributions of Smart; and how I will soon feel the same about Mathis. As most fans know, Winterwood is Mathis' final studio effort with the band. In making that statement, I aim to take nothing away from the new ensemble, but the previous manifestations of JFJO have been an eerily central part of my development as a musician, a listener and a writer. In both my personal and professional interactions with the band, they introduced me to the concept of jazz as an organic, evolving, living creature. My current passion for jazz could be traced directly to witnessing their performances during the late 1990s with original contributor Sean Layton, and I doubt I find myself alone in that sentiment.
Today, JFJO finds itself amidst a whirlwind of change. The sudden exodus of Jason Smart following last summer's Burlington Discover Jazz Festival and the subsequent departure of Reed Mathis will force a fundamental alteration in how fans perceive and receive the music of Jacob Fred. But, on the precipice of this shift, Reed Mathis dons yet another cap and steps into the producer's role for the gift to fans that is Winterwood. With the addition of drummer Josh Raymer, the album vacillates between familiar JFJO character – replete with complex beats, quasi-melodic jams and creative, exquisite composition – and an appreciably fresher tone and quality. I would venture so far to say this is the 'catchiest' album in recent memory, without any of the negative connotations sometimes associated with that term.
Mathis' arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Oklahoma Stomp," for example, features handclaps as an element of the backbeat, something fairly foreign to the JFJO of yesteryear. And while the band is known to frequently find themselves swirling in the midst of intense, discordant improvisations, such as those found on the recent Tomorrow We'll Know Today, this particular album's predominant strength lies in peaceful, strong composition and clarity of purpose. The tracks which most exemplify this trend are Brian Haas' piece "Goodnight Ollie," Jerry Garcia's "Crazy Fingers" and Mathis' "Twinstar," which features guest Jared Tyler on dobro, lap steel and mandolin. But, there is also an element of excitement and joy that shines through between notes on Winterwood. From the aforementioned "Oklahoma Stomp" to Mathis' nod to piano jazz history on "Earl Hines," the band displays a jovial lightness rarely seen in such excess on prior releases.
By Winterwood's end, my nostalgia for JFJO had subsided, temporarily exchanged for excitement and enthusiasm for the future potential evoked by this album. Raymer plays with Haas and Mathis with the familiarity of a decade's worth of collaboration, and his contributions to JFJO will most certainly prove to be invaluable. And despite the fact that Winterwood will be Mathis' final studio effort with this project, he could not have given us a more fitting parting gift. In fact, the band and their entire production crew deserves a huge amount of gratitude from our community for releasing Winterwood as a free album. With many folks finding it increasingly difficult to afford simple luxuries today, a gift of music is truly appreciated. I don't hesitate to say this is one of my favorite JFJO albums, both in terms of musical quality and production effort. While previous studio albums easily garner praise such as 'impressive,' 'cutting edge' or 'technically masterful,' this is their first album that I would plainly and honestly call 'beautiful.'
JamBase will offer a second take on Winterwood next week. And we'll have a show review of the new quartet lineup of JFJO at Yoshi's Oakland this Friday.
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