Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey :: 02.12.09 (late show) :: Yoshi's Oakland :: Oakland, CA
In its deepest genome, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has always been about change, be they shifts in the music or even personnel. For them, the basic puddle of life they draw from needs to bubble and churn. While occasionally chill, they are never placid or serene. So, with this in mind, I strolled into Yoshi's Oakland anxious to see what new digit they'd grown or how sleek their new fur looked. In no substantive way was I concerned about the recent departure of bassist/co-founder Reed Mathis. Unlike many in the jam spheres, I'm a lot less hung up on the cult of personality that frequently builds around individuals. I find I'm always more interested in the whole organism, what its writhing and chatter sounds like, and since falling for The Fred in 2002 I've rarely encountered a more alive, evolutionary musical animal.
JFJO :: 02.12.09 :: Oakland|
Strolling out in suit jackets and no ties, I was struck how much like school boys let loose in a pristine cathedral this pairing of venue and artist was. But, my faith holds that God's Gnostic heart is always found with loving rabble-rousers like JFJO because it's they who lead the flock away from passivity and dead-eyed obedience to authority. And again digging into the inner workings of their DNA, it's worth noting how orthodoxy and tradition are incorporated but rarely if ever bowed down to with Jacob Fred. While co-founder/keyboardist Brian Haas and newish drum mangler Josh Raymer have been vetted it remained to be heard if newcomers Chris Combs (lap steel, guitar) and Matt Hayes (acoustic bass) were kindred spirits. With Duke-ish flair (the first of several Ellingtonian twinkles this set), the quartet launched a Money Jungle-like strut with piano throwing bright flashes in our eyes for a few moments until the intense tang of steel guitar slid in, lubricated and filling any possible gap left by Mathis' strange voicings. With Combs and Haas riding the front edge, there's more light pouring from their music than in recent times. It's hard to explain but the more subtle low-end relationship between Hayes and Raymer combined with two sharply drawn melodic instruments is uplifting in a new way for JFJO. There has always been great joy in their music but something fresh tugs at the spirit in this configuration.
This lineup made their debut on January 10 at the NYC Winter Jazz Festival, and with only a month fully in the saddle they're still working out their interactions, with Haas signaling solos and yelping audibles. That said, holy jumpin' jeezus they sound so very, well, Fred. Theirs is energy music full of wild invention played against thoughtfully clever compositions and a potent, volatile love/hate relationship with jazz history. Simpler, they are friction AND glide, cataclysm AND birth funneled into punk-classical microcosms. It's not an environment most musicians could thrive in, requiring confidence, devil-may-care bravado and a willingness to get bloodied trying and failing at different things. Luckily, Haas, the clear leader here, is surrounded by guys who get the big "IT" of JFJO, and that fact was clear before the first tune had wrapped.
Since Raymer came on board in 2007, there's been an increased intensity and rise in overall temperature. With Mathis working in other fields, the bond between Raymer and Haas has matured into a dyad that may one day rival the 15-year telepathy Mathis and Haas shared. They stoked each other throughout this set, pushing for a bit more in the solos and prodding something finer in the straightaways. For example, their curious and hugely appealing take on Ellington's "Oklahoma Stomp," which tapped Duke's profound finger magic but also echoed liquidy Outkast, '40 Midwest big band swing and the boulder breaking smash of Buddy Rich. Without another alpha male personality in the bass role, paired with Hayes' fat, patient tone, Raymer unleashed a plethora of new textures and moves. This is no dig at Mathis, who is simply one of my all-time favorite players, but one is naturally curious about the differences when someone leaves after a decade and a half of dictating a group's sound.
|Josh Raymer :: 02.12.09 :: Oakland|
Further differences: With a tripping hazard array of effects pedals and dials, Combs touches upon a similar auditory spectrum as Mathis at times but – and this is important – he mainly works in a wholly different assortment of sonics and approaches than previously heard in Jacob Fred; at times a spooky swing vibe, at others a penetrating moan akin to Jerry Garcia's steel work, some parts evoking Les Paul's wacky '50s work with Mary Ford and others the charged current of Speedy West and Merle Travis. There's a whole lot more Oklahoma twang to The Fred now, and it's a welcome voice that honors their Tulsa origins. Similarly, Hayes inhabits different places than Mathis usually visited, giving the group a more sinewy character, something felt under the skin, moving bone and muscle in an unseen manner.
And what of dear Brian Haas? What this performance cemented for me is his place as my personal favorite pianist alive. No hype, no bullshit. I've heard most of the major dudes working ivory today and there's just nothing quite like Haas. I've grown tired of comparing him to the greats and during this set one felt his originality slosh all over them. Since folks adore (and perhaps even require) touchstones to "get" a contemporary player, I'll offer this: Monk and Bud Powell wouldn't kick this modernity-addled Jelly Roll Morton out of bed for eating crackers. Even those high-minded glosses don't really do the trick. There's too much hair and sweat on his stuff to make it work in hierarchical terms. He's an original and remains the throbbing muscle pumping blood through JFJO's arteries. If anything, he seems more possessed than ever to continue the Odyssey down its own path, finding fresh ways to combine accessibility with innovation, melody with dissembling, the past with the future, all coalescing in the present like a fog that remains but a moment yet drenches us good.
Combs had a way of slipping in and out of things with spectral perfection. He's obviously still finding his way into JFJO's massive catalog but he's doing so in his own way, emulating little from the band's past, and in this way being true to their prevailing id. Take, for example, the delay riddled stunner of a solo he pulled out during "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" or the third eye opening antics during new tune "Drethoven," which bounced to a monstrous Raymer breakbeat while steel melted all over a metronome challenging piano figure and the wide-legged double bass stride. A perfectly placed cover of Jerry's "Crazy Fingers" showed the quartet can handle quietude, too, and another new one, "Country Girl," was a tipsy hayride to a traveling carnival that left us laughing, wind rumpled and smelling sweetly of straw and the outdoors.
|Brian Haas :: 02.12.09 :: Oakland|
"We decided to give away our best record for free rather than our worst record for free," quipped Haas before "Dove's Army of Love," which has already mutated from the studio version on the recently released Winterwood. Like much of their catalog, it's a highly modern tune that moves within and without the expected jazz field, filled with post-electronica percussion anchored to elegant keys.
So, what's the pronouncement for Jacob Fred 2009 Edition after my first taste? It's different but the same in all the right ways. Their central character remains vibrantly intact. The generative force in JFJO thrives on evolution and devolution, a thrillingly immediate philosophical ying-yang that actually honors their jazz ancestors more than any codified, wine bar, bebop-ish bull (oh Wynton, why must you have such a big mouth and so much influence?). They stave off stagnation by embracing difference and welcoming in any worthy influence. It's gotta be a nightmare to market and it requires a fair amount of fans, too, but in the end its what makes them the Wild West gunslingers in a community of domesticated servants.
On a personal note, my own evolution as a chronicler and commentator on music sort of begins with Jacob Fred. My first piece for JamBase, published on July 9, 2002, is about them. I had written a review after seeing them for the first time. It was rangy and untamed but full of passion, and I doubted anyone would publish it. Then I found JamBase, and countless articles later I'm the Associate Editor, but I still find myself consistently enlivened by Jacob Fred in a way few others rival. I bring this up to point out how what JFJO does helps carry "Art" with a capital "A" to higher ground. Their refusal to play to more readily profitable avenues and the tenacity of their creative drive is inspirational. It's made me a better writer, constantly sparking what I feel is my most honest, excited work, and I think, in perhaps unquantifiable ways, they do the same for music in the cosmic sense. This set at Yoshi's only confirmed these beliefs and made me hopeful for their future. Long live JFJO!
"The more one studies the harmony of music, and then studies human nature, how people agree and how they disagree, how there is attraction and repulsion, the more one will see that it is all music." - Hazrat Inayat Khan
Above quote taken from Chris Combs' MySpace page, where he also says, "I like breathing and humans that continue to evolve. I love you." Yeah, this guy's gonna work out just fine in The Fred.
Chris Combs & Matt Hayes :: 02.12.09 :: Oakland
Brian Haas :: 02.12.09 :: Oakland
You can hear MP3s of the early set at Yoshi's and see footage of JFJO with guitar master Bill Frisell at a recent show by popping over HERE.
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