The tension was electric at Curly’s, a warehouse-style, 18-and-under bar in downtown Tulsa. New Year’s Eve finally arrived and none too soon. It promised to be the quintessential Fred show, a must-have for collectors and a must-see for the newer generation of Fredheads. The atmosphere was festive, and perhaps a little tipsy. The suspense was killing us all. What would the Fred do to their native Tulsans, their friends and relations, to make this a memorable New Year’s Eve? Because that’s really what a trip to the Fred is all about: What are they going to DO TO you this time?
Most of the people at the show had been weaned on Fred as far the live music scene in T-town goes, and were quite surprised to find that the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has become a tightly honed, well-oiled machine of just three. (“You mean this is the whole band?”) And after the first song, an improvisational ditty entitled “We Like Living in Tulsa,” we realized why this well-oiled machine has dwindled to the three: the power house of Jason, Reed and our resident guru, Brian Haas, leaves virtually no room for anyone else.
The band is comprised of Brian Haas on melodica and Rhodes piano, Jason Smart on drums and percussion and Reed Mathis on electric bass.
Made famous for their abstract and sometimes ambient new jazz styles, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is from Tulsa, but seemingly rarely make it home these days. With a non-stop touring schedule, they are able to boast as having played more live shows in 2001 than any other JamBase band.
A generous portion of the Oklahoma State drum line had turned out to hear famed Richard Haas, JFJO’s previous drummer, play. As the Fred have always been consistently and historically quiet about any changes in the band’s line-up, I let the OSU boys in on the “secret”: Richard Haas has gone on to pursue other things, Jason Smart, formerly of Ray's Music Exchange in Cincinnati, is the new man.
You are taking a risk any time you remove a beloved member of the band and replace him with a newbie, but this was a risk that was necessary for the Fred. Jason’s influence has been exactly what was needed to take them to next level. Jason Smart constantly impresses us all with his mastery of rudimentary style drumming that gives the amount of control and structure that Fred has so long played without.
When I try to explain Jacob Fred’s style to my friends who are unfamiliar with the their music, I find myself simply saying “You’ve never seen kids do to their instruments what these guys do to their instruments.” This axiom is particularly true of Reed Mathis. Reed is the lead guitarist, never mind that he plays bass. He looks nothing like Jimi Hendrix physically, but matches him time and again on originality, passion and extreme sexual energy. He often takes the lead role in the songs, pounding out melody and rhythm with equal and amazing fierceness and delicacy.
The tension they get going between each other is the very thing the audience feeds off, gaining momentum and excitement. This in turn feeds the Fred, who drink deep from the well of communal love vibes pulsating around Curly’s, a joint with about as much class as chicken fried steak. They turn the vibes into fluid music, the love into ecstasy, and the dancing into chaos.
Highlights of the show included my all-time Fred favorite, “Grub Ridge Stomp.” “Grub Ridge Stomp” turned into a scathing “No Method,” which, to use the vernacular of our day, was downright sick, meaning it twisted and distorted (my idea of good), mocking me as it forced me to transcend all I’d ever known about the song and evolve to the next level. Their all-time crowd pleaser, “Vernal Equinox,” was just as wonderful as ever, sweet and lovely. Another song that rarely gets as much praise as it deserves, “Thelonious Monk is My Grandmother,” has also evolved from an abstract beauty to a tightly crafted melody and was the best I’ve ever heard it. They closed the show with a special treat, John Coltrane’s, A Love Supreme, a lengthy four part jazz number that had us all up and dancing. Their rendition of it paid glowing homage to the man that, according to Reed and Brian, has had the most influence on Jacob Fred’s music.
Religion. Faith. Beauty. Melody. Rhythm. Energy. Community. Love Supreme. Can all these things have their materialization in the live music of one band? Maybe it was that acid you ate...
But what is it really about the Fred that keeps us so moved by them, so convinced that they might not be mere men after all, so proud of them as young parents might be, so sure of their genius?
Well, you just have to see the show. You have to see Brian, writhing and shaking until you’re just sure he’s going to hurt himself, perhaps bang his head right down on the keyboard. (Hmmm, now there’s an idea, he could play a whole song with his forehead...) You have to see Reed, playing beautiful high melodies on his bass, breaking strings, his brow furrowed, mouth open in ecstatic oneness with the music. You just have to see this shit to believe it.
My advice is this: If you have any interest in seeing the Fred at all, catch them in 2002 before they become another String Cheese Incident, too popular to play the clubs anymore, too big to have any more shows that are $10 or under. In other words, see them NOW, before they explode and we’re all confined to the nosebleed arena seats, smoking weed and going “Remember when you could go right up and hug Reed in between songs?”
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