JFJO | 02.10 | Santa Cruz

By: Dennis Cook

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey :: 02.10.10 :: Moe's Alley :: Santa Cruz, CA

Wow, what a different band.

JFJO by Jeremy Charles
Tilted gently but firmly by Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's fully interlocked, supremely slinky sound waves at Moe's Alley, I couldn't escape the feeling of newness and excitability generated by the band. But, I also couldn't slip the feeling that I was watching an almost entirely different being from the one I encountered at my first JFJO show in 2002. Thing is, I love both bands, especially because the transformation is not cosmetic. Something profound has shifted in JFJO's DNA, though one can still pick up the ancestral lines in their profile, feel the same tongue-deep embrace of the moment, and most especially, the phenomenal sense of burgeoning creativity that has marked every incarnation.

The mainstay of Jacob Fred's many lineups is master keyboardist Brian Haas, and while early indications this year were Haas would be the focal point of things to come, the Moe's Alley gig revealed a quartet beginning to find their wheelhouse. While I've enjoyed the band's many metamorphoses, based on this performance, we're at the dawn of some really special, spectacular music that will continue to reshape what folks call "jazz" or even "music." Haas, Matt Hayes (upright bass), Chris Combs (lap steel, guitar) and Josh Raymer (drums) are carving a unique niche in the instrumental world. While definitely JFJO's sexiest, moodiest lineup, these four also bring together a number of hitherto largely unheard strains – country, tango, bossa nova – that are complicating (in the best way) the Fred sound.

JFJO by Greg Aiello
While one picks up on hints of what was in the older material, everything has been given a working over. It's still JFJO but with some fresh footwork and a shiny new coat. Once Haas' wild boy foil onstage, Raymer exhibited a steadiness and clarity of playing – a combo of New Orleans swing with the crisp clack of Art Blakey - that anchored the lot, and Hayes – joyfully wobbling head and wide hanging mouth – is the other delightful spaz in the mix. I think Haas needs at least one guy onstage who's willing to get as silly as him, as willing to display the music on his face, in order to be his best. And B. Haas was on freakin' fire at Moe's. Dancing with his electric piano, blowing sweet soul into his melodica or just transmitting heavy vibrations through his thin, powerful body, Haas was more inventive, switch-on and happy than I've seen him in ages. For whatever reason, he's got his groove back and one of the leading keyboard lights of his generation is again reminding so, so many others what half-talents they truly are.

Springing off Hayes and Raymer's pinpoint hits and all-encompassing rhythmic tide was Combs' absolutely breathtaking lap steel wizardry. It seems like hype to pack so many adjectives onto a young musician but Combs is a major find AND maybe one of the few perfect matches for Haas – as idiosyncratic and volatile a player as ever walked the earth. His ardor snags something from Jobim and Piazzolla while his more intricate, fast picking brings to mind Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Bryant. Guitar has never really been part of JFJO's makeup, despite some past concerted efforts to make it so. Combs ties the group into another part of music's lineage, putting humming strings and Fripp-esque spookiness in places in the catalog they've never been and proving a significant melodic leader within the quartet.

JFJO by Greg Aiello
Much of the new material, which provided the bulk of the setlist, was penned by Raymer, Hayes and Combs, often in combination with one another or Haas, and this may be the most significant sign that Jacob Fred is alive and well. Composition has always been the secret heart of JFJO's success. They are – everyone who's ever served time in their ranks – amazing improvisers, but what really separates them from all the other chop-masters afoot is tunes that stick. From the playful ("That's a new tune about me jumping on a trampoline with friends" – Haas) to the profoundly moving, JFJO has a tradition of songwriting that's never shallow even when it's crazed and childlike. Today's quartet is keeping that tradition going with real style, and doing so in tandem in a band known primarily for solo composers. "Drethoven" – offered in the best version I've yet heard at Moe's – is on par with any of their past staples, and Stay Gold, their full-length debut together hitting in June, may be the most elegant, just plain lovely JFJO album ever assembled.

There's a palpable desire to directly connect with the music and fans in JFJO right now. In other words, they're all about getting down to it and moving forward into wherever it is they're going. In truth, they don't seem to really know themselves where it's all leading, but such uncertainty has been part of every Fred-volution. They feed off it and face their fears in order to reveal what's around the corner and the next one and the next. At one point someone in the back yelled out a question about the group's name. Without missing a beat, Haas said, "Jacob Fred is the name I wanted my parents to give my baby brother when I was three, and Jazz Odyssey is, of course, from Spinal Tap." No goofing, no subterfuge, just a clear response. And the whole enterprise is functioning with this sort of clarity and forward motion.

Just as many actors have played Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett's tale of existential blue balls Waiting For Godot, it occurred to me, lost in the second set's rapturous exploration, that maybe "Jacob Fred" is an entity for many players to inhabit. He's waiting, impatiently perhaps, to be animated into jigs, waltzes and Sufi-style whirls, and many spirits, many hands are required to lift his limbs and give him expression. At present, he's cavorting in a way that's got to be seen and heard to really comprehend. Words - even for someone who's wrestled for nearly a decade to capture them in prose - only scratch the surface when music is this alive, present and inspiring.

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[Published on: 2/26/10]

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