Reed Mathis: Vernal Gratitude

By: Dennis Cook

Reed Mathis by Ariel Mathis
Reed Mathis is somewhat surprised when I call him an instigator. Yet, there is a discernible musical prod at the core of his playing and personality. Mathis is a once-or-twice in a generation player, someone who will forever change the way his instrument is viewed henceforth. Those sort of pronouncements make him squirm in person, but put him on a stage or in a studio with almost anyone and chances are they'll play their very best and stray, at least a bit, outside of their comfort zone, hooked into forgetting what they know for the chance to discover what's out there.

"Are you saying I throw people off their game?" says Mathis with his easy, earthy laugh. "Playful" is one of the first adjectives that springs to mind with this hyper-gifted bassist who's made his mark with a 15-year stint with the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and in recent years finding his rock voice in Tea Leaf Green. "I've never tried to spark people into places they wouldn't normally go. I just think I'm a weirdo, and what comes naturally to me might be possibly jarring to other people. The stuff I hear [in my head], I just use whatever tools I can to try and make it come out in the physical world. But, it's not always what people expect."

Something many fans didn't expect was Mathis' abrupt departure from JFJO this past January. The group's website announced a new lineup with Chris Combs (lap steel) and Matt Hayes (bass) joining co-founding keyboardist Brian Haas and drummer Josh Raymer and offering well wishes to Mathis, who they described as "exploring other musical endeavors." Mathis had been doing double duty in JFJO and TLG for about a full year, and the strain of things proved too much for all parties where something had to give. For many JFJO lovers, it's hard to conceive of the group without Mathis' wailing bass vocalizations and mad genius spirit – he is Robert Fripp smart but wonderfully tempered by a Bill Frisell heart. 2009 has seen Jacob Fred thriving in their new configuration, and Mathis continuing apace with Tea Leaf as well as collaborating with Marco Benevento and others, including some groundbreaking personal experiments with symphonic music still simmering in the lab. But, no one is feeling his absence from JFJO more than Mathis himself.

Reed Mathis by Josh Miller
"Jacob Fred is so beautiful. It's really one of the greatest bands in the history of music, if you ask me," Mathis offers sincerely and then nervously chuckles to hide his embarrassment over making such a claim about a band he co-founded and helped shaped for more than a decade. So, finally asking the question hanging in the room, how does it feel to not be part of it now?

"It's intense. It was a hard decision for sure, definitely bittersweet. I love those guys, and I love that music. The decision to move on has a lot of variables but it kind of comes down to change and just rolling the dice. That's one of things I've always loved about Jacob Fred, the constant change and the gamble of it all. And this move feels very much in that tradition," explains Mathis. "Part of my decision was that for the first time in 15 years Jacob Fred is in a position to play without me. Jacob Fred's always been sort of a collective – what have there been over the years, 15 or 16 members? – this loose, Oklahoma-centric organic thing. And mainly because last year I was playing in both bands, they got themselves to a point where they could play without me."

"Chris Combs and Matt Hayes are the sort of two-headed monster filling my slot [laughs]. Chris is sort of the soprano role, what I was doing with the whammy pedal and guitar, and what I was doing with the bass is now Matt," says Mathis. "Those guys are some of my best friends; I've known them and been making music with them for years. I've sat down one-on-one with them and gone through the music many times, so I feel super confident they know the dialect and know the drill and know the parts and know when to throw the parts out the window [laughs]. I have complete confidence that they're in the position to make music of equal caliber, if not greater, without me there. Without that I wouldn't have been able to make this change. Jacob Fred is too beautiful a thing to not happen."

"Brian and I have been playing together for so long that it's hard to know who's who really. That's part of what's great about it but it's also part of this opportunity to figure who's who, to find out how much of me is me and how much is us," continues Mathis. "In the '90s we'd write songs that featured ourselves – I would write a song that I soloed over and he'd write a song that he soloed over - and then somehow that shifted where his songs had me in the foreground and my songs had him in the foreground. It's really an amazing partnership, and to be honest, I really hope it's not done. I really hope there's more Jacob Fred music in my future. That's my home dialect, but that'll be up to those guys whether they want me on-board in the future."

Getting Leafy

"There's a lot of ways I look at [being in Tea Leaf Green]. One way is Jacob Fred's journey – just for me personally – is about internal music, the music of that realm. Learning to play Jacob Fred music for me is about learning to play the things that are mine and mine only, just pure inner drip," observes Mathis. "But, over the past few years I've gotten this urge to learn about the flipside – the music we all have in common, public music. For better or worse, you have to follow your muse, follow your curiosity. For me, music has always been about adventure and finding new things. The easiest way I can sum up the difference between the two bands is Jacob Fred is kind of about making a self-portrait, and when I'm onstage with Tea Leaf Green I kinda feel like I'm making the audience's portrait. It's a real different thing and it requires different skills, and it's something I've been craving for a while."

Clark & Mathis - TLG by Dave Vann
Mathis isn't kidding about this craving. He's long daydreamed about playing in a classic rock setting where he could grow to understand the grooves and details of bass in that realm, as well as explore the role of supporting a singer, much the same way a gifted jazz pianist learns tons being a vocal accompanist. Plus, there's the hovering fantasy any red-blooded American boy experiences, where they're on a big stage, foot up on an amp, while the kiddies twist 'n' shout at their command. Grand Funk Railroad aren't the only ones – as testified to by the monster sales of certain video game systems involving guitars and heroes – in love with all the trappings and mystique of being part of a rock band.

"Hell yeah! Jazz became rock 'n' roll sometime in late '40s, early '50s. There was this split and the energy that had been jazz for several decades, and well, half of that energy continued and became Coltrane and the other half became Chuck Berry and eventually The Beatles. But, they both came from the same music. Both little branches came from the same trunk. So, I've been feeling like exploring the other trunk," chuckles Mathis, amused at his entendre-rich observation. "What we call rock 'n' roll has its root in bebop jazz. From that angle, there's as much of the jazz tradition in what a band like Tea Leaf Green does as there is in what a band like Jacob Fred does. It's just a polarity switch."

"[In TLG] we have no idea of what's going to happen each night. There's a huge amount of improvising and surprise involved. And with Josh Clark [guitar] every single thing that guy plays is unexpected to me! I'm honestly and consistently surprised by him. He just goes for it with very little internal debate over what to do. He just does it and that's what improvising is," comments Mathis, who also digs the very symbiotic relationship Tea Leaf shares with their devoted audience. "Jacob Fred is a bit more of a voyeuristic experience [laughs]. With the Fred it's like watching a lion track, kill and eat an antelope. It's just nature, raw nature. It's absolutely glorious but a very different thing than a conversation, which is bit more what a Tea Leaf Green concert feels like. There's a little more awareness of the other half of the equation. You know, the lion is going to kill and eat the antelope regardless of anyone watching or not. Know what I mean?"

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