Early on in the performance I’m standing next to the stage watching Brian Haas’ hair bob up and down in a hypnotic synchronous rhythm to the music flowing from his fingertips. I had only intended to pass by quickly on the way to the bathrooms but I’m captured by the perfect merger of sound and image happening on the stage and stop dead in my tracks. Reed Mathis, eyes shut tight, mouth hanging slightly loose, dips into a slow, almost erotic response to the busy twinkling of Haas’ keyboard. As the bass weaves between the notes drummer Jason Smart catches that the music has taken a subtle turn and adjusts his tom tom pounding accordingly. The ferocious way this band listens to each other is visible to the naked eye but it’s the ear that enjoys the benefits. Only after a few more minutes do I remember that I’d gotten up for a purpose other than gawking at the finest trio to shoulder drop on jazz in years.
Tearing myself away from the music for a moment gives me time to reflect. Some music blossoms and waits to draw you in. Jacob Fred’s comes looking for you.
The intimacy of the Boom Boom Room makes sure that every note rings in every corner. Those that have come out of idle curiosity quickly realize the intensity of the band isn’t going to let up and step outside to smoke. The opening two spontaneous improvisations (including one dedicated to SF’s own OM Trio, who are in attendance at the gig) separates the proverbial wheat from the chaff. This music asks a lot of an audience and not everyone is up to it.
With a little more breathing room I wind my way back to the table and plop down next to my friend. She smiles and it’s clear the music is working its spell on her. Her’s is an expression filled with curiosity and surprise and a delight in the passion being spilled out freely by the band. Around us a number of other people sport the same look. It reflects the music being made while also being a by-product of it. I get the sense we are going somewhere but for the life of me I cannot possibly predict where that will be. The word ‘Odyssey’ pops into my head and I remind myself to look it up in a dictionary when I get home.
There are echoes of disparate musical ancestors in the Jacob Fred Jazz sound. There’s some of the whimsy of Sun Ra’s circus music. Their electric fervor brings to mind the smoking hot ‘70s Phil Woods Quartet. I hear touches of the heavy metal glee common to Skerik’s sometime band Crack Sabbath. Whiffs of electronic music’s churning pulse and multiple orgasm longevity blows through certain pieces. Like Rashaan Roland Kirk in the late ‘60s I can easily hear one of this band’s members yelling, “This ain’t no freakshow!” before a performance. The sheer SIZE of their musical vision instantly brings up the bombast & grandeur of Mahavishnu Orchestra. There are the same fires of purification being stoked here but thankfully without the pomp that sabotaged much of John McLaughlin’s unit. A saucy take on Monk’s Dream (with Michael Bizar laying in on guitar) at the end of the first set shows a respect for tradition without having to be a slave to it. But like I said at the start, these are just echoes. Jacob Fred’s sound is their own, the oxymoronic intersection of three singular stylists joined in collective effort to make a sound that transcends any one person’s contribution. It comes out like a kind of psychedelic hurdy-gurdy spilling fractured melodies and beauty in a reckless yet controlled burst over the listener.
And there’s a sense of humor at work in their sound that delights me beyond belief. Serious musicians rarely seem to crack a smile yet this group rarely seems to do anything but. Besides the big important work of making rich music they also want to have fun and they encourage us to join them in making merry. This is the release party for Jacob Fred’s new CD, All Is One – Live In New York City. At one point Brian Haas promises us that this one doesn’t suck, which implies that their previous releases were not up to snuff. But rather than bemoan that fact Haas offers up a smart, self-deprecating assessment that makes everyone chuckle.
The humor continues in their song titles that advance the grand tradition begun by freaks like Frank Zappa, The Lounge Lizards and Ween. "Muppet Babies Get Lost at the State Fair," "Thelonius Monk Is My Grandmother" (done in a pummelingly funky style this night), "Daily Wheat grass Shots Burned A New Pathway Through My Brain" and "Perfect Wife’s Flannel PJ’s" are but a few of the evocative songs in their arsenal. Each suggests images without being specific which makes each crack at the tune fun because it can go where it will based on the moment.
The moment, the BIG now of the present is maybe the heart of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey live experience. They play each tune like it’s the last time they might ever play it. So by God it better be freakin’ great. Just as this music asks a lot of listeners it asks a lot of the musicians making it. They take in all the factors around them and put them into the music. The energy of a crowd, the space & city they’re performing in, the other musicians present, their mood that day and every other little thing being thrown at them. Watching them play is watching someone tap into that invisible world that Jung talks about, that space behind everything that holds us all together, the archetypes and themes and history of all people. This band’s playing is a form of ecstatic worship, no different from whirling dervishes or Baptist choirs.
Listening to the J.F.J.O. is one thing but the whole experience of them live is another dimension all together. In preparing to see them for the first time at this show I’d been digging into several shows I’d traded for. While excellent they didn’t compare with the full wide screen joys of watching them make the music right before my eyes. They put their whole bodies and souls into their playing and that’s a hell of a thing to bear witness to.
That they also make us laugh is at the core of their unique charm. At one point someone in the crowd yelled out, “Rock ‘n’ Roll !!!” Brian Haas quick off-handed response was “Hootchie Choo!” Standing stage side again (for who could remain seated long with the J.F.J.O. in da’ house) I giggled like a fool. A happy fool who is quite sure he’s never been to a jazz show where Rick Derringer came up before but he surely hopes he’ll be at many more such shows in the years to come.
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