Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey | 06.12 | Oklahoma

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Rachel D. Hoefling

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey :: 06.12.10 :: OK Mozart Festival :: Bartlesville, OK

JFJO with Orchestra :: 06.12.10
Messing with Beethoven is serious business. Foundational artists like Ludwig Van test one's mettle and force them to grabble with fundamental structures and attitudes, particularly if one wants to put their own stamp on such a codified composer. Few are better suited to the task than Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, who took their joyously avant sensibilities right into the heart of traditionally snooty classical music by overhauling Beethoven's 3rd & 6th Symphonies using arrangements by Noam Faingold and JFJO. A longtime coming, Ludwig had its world premiere as part of the OK Mozart Festival in Bartlesville, Oklahoma with the 50-piece Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra melding with the forward leaning jazz quartet in an experience that proved as playful, unpredictable and gently exciting as one might hope.

Brian Haas (piano), Josh Raymer (drums), Chris Combs (lap steel) and new addition bassist Jeff Harshberger looked as squeaky clean as I'd ever seen them, excited in their crisp suits and itching to jump into the fruition of a journey that began years ago. Haas has been struggling to adapt Beethoven for ages, and after a false start in Brooklyn earlier this year they found their ideal creative foils in Faingold and Bartlesville Symphony music director Lauren Green, who both grokked how JFJO isn't like the other children, even when they are playing with a very known quantity like Beethoven. In a pre-concert discussion, Faingold said he realized some time ago that "a classical symphony with acoustic instruments could be way bigger than a metal band." It's this kind of outside-the-box perspective that makes him such a good fit for this particular band; though he admitted he was "initially paralyzed by [JFJO's] approach, which really pushed everyone's boundaries."

This last point is vitally important with Ludwig because if classical works aren't doomed to be artifacts laboriously recreated the boundaries must be pushed. We aren't reading by whale blubber lanterns anymore, and kings don't decide what's appropriate music and what isn't. We are wireless citizens of the world with whole record collections in our pocket. As such, antiquated modes of interpretation come off as particularly dusty, like the French in Vietnam in the '60s desperately clinging to their privileged colonial existence before the populist uprising. If Beethoven isn't going to be a relic studied and admired under glass he needs wild creatures like JFJO to dig their nails into his hide and pull out the meat underneath.

Jeff Harshberger & Chris Combs :: 06.12.10
Amongst other changes from stoic tradition, Haas pushed for "an old-timey, early 1900s call and response" feel between the orchestra and quartet. Perhaps more so than any other symphonic performance I've witnessed, these pieces had the feel of a big, bold conversation, and not just with the players present but also with Beethoven and the long line that's tried their hand at his works. JFJO always has this kind of reaching-through-time vibe in their "regular" gigs but to achieve even a fraction of that with such a large ensemble was an accomplishment in itself.

What first grabbed my attention was the level of swing infused into what can be somewhat academic music. Face it, much of the appeal of classical music is cerebral, and those that know things about this music are often prideful and disdainful of those that don't. Beginning with the pastoral inflections of the 6th Symphony, the ensemble immediately had more hips than one usually associates with Beethoven, inspiring some gentle head-nodding with their collective gait.

As the second movement emerged, the melting notes and unruly tone of Combs' lap steel REALLY set this performance apart. Combs' presence and instrumentation was likely the most contentious aspect of this re- imagining to many of the OK Mozart regulars, who perhaps didn't appreciate how wonderful a lap steel can be in the hands of an innovator like Combs. Combs' high reaching guttural tones played nicely against Haas' music box piano. And it was Haas who seemed the most uncharacteristic, curtailing his usual penchant for robust improvisation and serving something larger, something that required a delicacy and humility that a normal JFJO show does not. Raymer, too, exhibited real control and focus, placing each stick strike with care and caressing his cymbals like a lover. Where jazz seemed to come into play was in the general glide and individual solos, which didn't bow to the church of violin like much classical fare.

JFJO with Orchestra :: 06.12.10
As pleasant and refreshing as the 6th was, it was the boldly reconfigured 3rd Symphony that really showed the merits of this collaboration. Neither as bombastic or stiff as many interpretations, this struck at the heart of Beethoven's disappointment in Napoleon declaring himself emperor, a great man lost to vanity and power's madness. It was a dramatic and highly playful new vision for the 3rd filled with glorious double bass work from Harshberger that conjured gail force winds and light breezes depending on how his thick fingers or bow touched the strings. Perhaps the most invisible guy up there, he was all the more effective for the lack of spotlight, moving in and around the music with the skill of someone who doesn't need attention to be great at what they do.

I'd hazard a guess that this is the most rim-shots and hard snare taps the 3rd has ever experienced, not to mention the uniqueness of the strong samba flavors in the 2nd movement, which brought to mind Antonio Carlos Jobim and film composer Bernard Herrmann, and made the symphony dance in a new, alluring way. Sexy stuff.

The third movement was a wondrous sandbox of ideas for everyone to toy with, moving things around from pomp to romp. Classical music is rarely funny, except in perhaps a very dry, droll way. Here, the players delighted in tickling the audience, tossing notes into the air in a manner that suggested a childlike rediscovery of what had drawn them to this music in the first place. This infectious feeling carried the symphony to an honestly rousing conclusion where the faces of JFJO and their collaborators signaled their awareness that they'd pulled off something significant.

Beethoven's writing – like most classical music – has a mathematical logic to it but this felt closer to today's theoretical mathematics and its string theories and quantum logic. Instead of being locked away by the culture police, Beethoven got to stretch his legs a good bit. Ludwig has the potential to connect with younger audiences who wouldn't know Dvorak from Devo. Ludwig will likely be refined as big city orchestras take a shot at it and Haas and company tweak it further, but in the moment one could be sure they were present at the birth of something lovingly crafted and deeply felt.

JFJO released their swell new studio album Stay Gold on June 22. Find out more here.

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[Published on: 6/28/10]

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