By: Dennis Cook
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey :: 06.19.09 :: Starry Plough :: Berkeley, CA
"We appreciate your ears."
It was late in their sizzling performance at hallowed leftie hang the Starry Plough when Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's de facto leader Brian Haas offered these thanks. It's an expression I've personally heard him utter many times on many stages but this instance seemed especially sincere. JFJO finds itself at a curious crossroads in 2009, with only one original member and two fresh recruits (and a drummer of fairly recent vintage, too). This sort of juncture often upends a band, but Jacob Fred isn't your average bear and the force, grandeur, consummate skill and giddy engagement this night made me shout, "No, thank YOU!"
I don't think Haas heard me over the bluster of the shimmying, vaguely gobsmacked crowd, but I'm here to lay it out in black and white: Jacob Fred is alive and well. Having been on the Odyssey for seven years I've watched them mutate in so many interesting ways, flirting with tradition and breaking new ground that may one day prove tradition for the generation at their heels. And without a doubt this is one of the finest incarnations this evolution loving entity has ever seen, and most assuredly the sexiest form they've ever assumed. There's an intertangled undercurrent to them that drew one in quickly at the Plough, something impolitely animal and a real return to the raw physicality that gripped me at my earliest JFJO shows at the start of this decade. Jazz it is, in form and philosophy, but the fleshy clangers between their thighs are pure rock 'n' roll – a touch messy, hairy, beastly in ways that ground us in our humanity.
As "Song of the Vipers" zipped along, zooted as the piano crazies in Reefer Madness, I felt Chris Combs' lap steel curl around my waist and pull me close, whispering, "Ah-wow-wow-zow," in my ear, a wordless scat that made me tap. And folks, I do not tap easily. Only a few months in and Combs has developed a conversational style with the Jacob Fred milieu that's startling. He is, without a doubt, a rare kindred spirit capable of chatting away with Haas' devilish keys in ways that echo and expand on the vocalizations associated with former bassist and co-founder Reed Mathis. In this way Combs fills that void but he's his own man and is already busy carving out fresh details in their marbles. As "Vipers" progressed, Combs kept adding invigorating touches, jumping in and out of what the others were laying down, and seamlessly following Haas' lead into Joe Sample-esque dark matter jamming full of frisky cosmic twinkles – the "future" of The Jetsons somehow dropped into the middle of a tune from the 1930s in a way that worked – and back out to restate the theme with resounding authority. By the end, it was clear Louis Armstrong had never been handled in quite this way before. To borrow a line from dear Jim James, they are the innovators not the imitators.
There was also unexpected unity and pow from the rhythm team of Josh Raymer (drums) and Matt Hayes (upright bass), who created an undulating, wholly engaging pairing, where the sinewy, woody sound of Hayes' instrument wove between the busy-yet-never-too-busy clatter of Raymer, who is playing with the whack of vintage Billy Cobham married to the high wire skill of Steve Smith and the sensuality and pure timekeeping of Chic's Tony Thompson – yeah, the kid is all that! It's a markedly different low-end than any previous lineup and if one comes in hankering for the more-lead-than-rhythm sound of Mathis then they're going to be disappointed. However, this is where lots of the sexiness is coming from. The two of them are so tangible, so grope-y, so eager to get a piece of it, of you, of the universe that to refuse them would be just mean. Watching the sheer energy they put into plying their trade made one tired, and there's no denying that their youth quickens one's pulse in a powerful way. One felt them strongly on standout new tune "Drethoven" but also in more subtle ways on an exquisite version of The Beatles' "Julia," where Haas also shone brightly at the piano, the combination offering a lullaby and a prayer seasoned by will-o-wisp steel licks.
|Chris Combs & Matt Hayes by Josh Miller|
The Beatles, Armstrong and much of the rest is not new territory for JFJO but it ALL felt shiny and new at the Plough. From smoky, Dave Brubeck worthy passages to bits that felt like the live band equivalent to primo Boards of Canada or Squarepusher, this quartet proved that while three was a magic number so is four in this equation. This bunch flirts less with traditional jazz, using the canon as a taut springboard for some quite daring but very together excursions. Perhaps that, the uniformity of execution and dovetailing components, is what will truly mark this era of Jacob Fred. This music feels so goddamn natural that it seems like it must have been with us for eons though we witnessed it being born right before our eyes. This chitchat with the ages, the way the old and new meet in this group, was exuberantly audible during the entirety of this set. When JFJO is firing on all cylinders, as they were here, time simply opens up for them, leaving them free from genre and year, offering us wordless storytelling that always says something worth listening to, takes us places, steers us from our own time-crunched ruts.
Put bluntly and with no disrespect intended to Mathis, Jason Smart or anyone else that's been part of this pioneering unit, this is the most exciting configuration in years. I can't quite put my finger on all the reasons why but I felt captured and wonderfully cajoled in the same way I did at my very first Fred events. I felt present at the ground zero of something that resurrects a genre too often inclined towards stodginess and safety. Once again, Jacob Fred is the finest cerebral dance hall combo on the planet, the sons of Duke Ellington, Mingus and Sly Stone, not to mention Armstrong, Monk and Garcia. And if this show is any indication, they are feeling their oats in a huge way, coming at one all scrappy and smiling. You never quite knew if they were going to kiss you or bite you but you welcomed the sensation either way. Great one, lads, keep it up!
A few positive nods to the opener, San Francisco's Antioquia, who began by handing out homemade tin can shakers to the audience and actively inviting us to chime in, dance and otherwise twirl with them. Often this sort of thing feels forced ("Are you ready to rock? I can't hear you!") but they were so disarming and their music so interestingly angled and percussive that resistance was pretty futile. In broad strokes some of their music came across like the Talking Heads' "The Great Curve" or "I Zimbra" with a grimier underbelly, while other parts injected a Devo-like skip to tribal-inflected pop with distant echoes of quality ancestors like Pere Ubu, X-Ray Spex and The Specials (that is if they incorporated Cuban son, Afrobeat and a sprinkle of whatever you call the Art Ensemble of Chicago). Things are further enhanced by a dynamite lead singer, Mana Maddy Streicek, that infused things with a strange femininity and gut level energy and a dynamic group vibe that weaves everything together. Named after a prime coffee growing section of the Andes in Columbia, Antioquia was vast, rangy and honestly punky, shooing boogiemen from under our beds and making a Friday night audience step lighter than they did upon entry. Excellent wind-up for the main event and a real find that's currently on a national tour (dates can be found here).
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