Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey | The Fez | Portland, OR | 9.21.02
The Fez is far and away the best live music venue in Portland right now. The Crystal Ballroom has everything bad that you’d want to avoid in a venue such as overpriced tickets sold only through TicketMaster, a separate 21+ section that makes it impossible for the drinkers to see the show from the front, a pocket-groping and intrusive pat down to get in, huge lines with up to twenty minute waits for the scant open bars that seem to be opened based on a random whim instead of how many people are at a given show, the outrageous booze prices, and the crappy sound. One of the newest lame features of the Crystal is that it attracts people who talk during the entire show. But on the plus side there are bouncy floors and cool art. Whoopee. (Please note sarcasm.) The time has come for the Crystal to stop mistreating the fans that have made it so successful. If more of the bigger bands would play the Roseland Theater, I would happily never attend another show at the Crystal Ballroom. And with such a great small to mid-size venue as The Fez around, maybe the Crystal Ballroom should take notes and get back to their roots. Seems they’ve forgotten customer service somewhere along the way.
Whew! Now that the ugly Crystal bashing is out of the way, let’s get down to the business at hand, a great evening of music at The Fez. The door woman greeted us with a smile and stamped our hands after checking our IDs. We then made our way up the two flights of stairs. The last flight has beautifully painted art on the walls. The images transport one to a beautiful section of the Middle East, palm trees swaying in the breeze and sand dunes rolling into the distance. There are pillars, ancient buildings, and the blue and white of fair weather sky rendered here beautifully as well. One last archway is painted to appear as if it were made of ancient stone and, once through, you’ve made it to The Fez.
There are three single toilet bathrooms on the left as one enters the venue. Once past these, make a right turn. Around the corner one finds a room filled with large iron light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, long white drapes, and lush carpeting. The band merchandise table is set up on one side of this room while the bar is at the other end. Connected to this room is the dance floor and stage. The wooden dance floor is large and spacious and the room has very high ceilings. Scattered around the perimeter of the floor in a horse shoe shape are comfortable couches piled high with fluffy pillows. A smaller bar is located near the back left hand corner of the stage. The room has great lighting, too, with strategically placed I-Beams and a disco ball hovering over the dance floor.
Had I known about this band at all, I would have been trying to mentally prepare myself for what was about to happen. But I was a Jacob Fred virgin, an unsuspecting sheep, and had no idea what I was in for. Surely these guys would be yet another instrumental funk groove band with members taking turns ripping solos over some jazzy chord progressions. I had heard that these guys were sick players, a cut above, but that doesn’t do them justice. Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey truly is one of those bands you have to see live to be able to grasp.
Don’t grasp too tightly, however. As soon as you do they shift their shape and bolt away from your notions like so much mercury. And to all but the serious improvisational music fan, they might serve to be just as poisonous. These guys are not out to make beautiful melodies or sing pretty harmonies. They go out every night and push the accepted norms of what live music is supposed to be. Each player brings a flare and desire that would be evident from the last row of any theater. These guys are passionate about their playing. And even though some of what they play is inaccessible to many music fans, their absolute joy at being on stage is contagious.
The band came out and took the stage. Jason Smart is a young-looking, skinny kid with short hair and brown eyes. He plays with a pretty stolid expression on his face, slowly opening his mouth every now and then. Brian Haas, the keyboard player, sat behind his keyboard which was a vintage old Fender Rhodes. He also had a Melodica, which is a small keyboard that uses a mouth blow-tube when played. I noticed that Brian had about three different guitar pedals lying on his Fender Rhodes, too. He is a also very skinny guy and has longish brown curly hair. His playing style varies from subdued to completely kinetic. At times his hands would vibrate so fast they became mere blurs and he would stand up, rock back and forth, and move his head forwards and backwards as his long curls flopped wildly. Reed Mathis had a wily grin as he strapped on his bass. He’s a fairly thin guy as well, and has a reddish mop top and facial hair. Reed plays the bass unlike any other bass player I’ve seen. He leans back, rolls his eyes, sways from side to side, and hangs his mouth open while he experiments on the bass, getting deep inside the music. His electric bass runs through many pedals such as a wah and reverb that give the instrument an unusually varied sound template to choose from. Reed can take high end solos with strange effects or drop down into a more traditional bass line and hold things together.
They started things off with a tune Reed introduced called “Lovejoy.” Apparently, this a relatively new song. It was, like almost every song in this band’s repertoire, a bit peculiar. Brian started things off by blowing into his Melodica. This strange keyboard sounded like a toy as Brian blew through the long tube. Jason Smart then backed the high-pitched noises with a slinky but minimalist drum line. Reed then entered into the song to add small fragments of bass lines here and there. The entire tune was very airy, but also somewhat disjointed. It never built in tempo and seemed like a strange opener to me. In retrospect, I think the guys were just trying to gently ease the crowd into what they knew would eventually become a twisted all-out aural assault.
Brian then made mention that the government is poisoning us by not labeling genetically altered food and he asked us to support a movement for labels on the stuff. I had to agree. From here the songs got more intense and became more drawn out affairs. It was almost free jazz with structure, even though that doesn’t make any sense. The songs often had no steady or driving beat. Every so often a groove would emerge with a good rhythm, but it often disintegrated just as quickly as it began. Within a standard measure Brian Haas would pound on the keyboards irregularly, sometimes filling the measure up wonderfully with way too many notes. Jason and Brian seemed to connect well and were watching each other pretty closely for most of the show. At times, Brian would play the bass line at the low end of his keyboard so that Reed could take lead solos with his bass.
The first set highlight was a sick jam that had both Brian and Reed moving violently on stage, writhing with emotion and pleasure as the music poured out of them. As the highly distorted alien notes dripped out of Reed’s bass rig and Brian pounded up and down like a man possessed, things got even stranger. Suddenly Reed pulled out a toy space ray-gun. It was a little shiny metallic toy that had some red circles near the barrel that lit up when he squeezed the trigger. He held the gun over the bass pick-up and then let it rip. A whirling high pitched noise came whistling through the PA system. Reed then used the tip of the gun barrel to tap the strings which caused another weird follow up sound. There were so many effects happening that normal playing was sounding very bizarre, but the gun took it to another level. While all this was going on Reed was manipulating the volume on the bass for added effect. As this thunderous jam rattled to an end I was truly amazed. During set break I tried to wrap my mind around it all.
The crowd was diminished by the beginning of the second set, but not completely gone. Many folks were on the floor and dancing as soon as Jacob Fred took the stage for the second set. Let me say, however, that this music is not necessarily dance music. Sometimes the band heats up and churns out some groovy danceable stuff, but most of the time this music is better suited to the close listener/observer. As the band delved into some slower tunes, more people left the dance floor. The band was still playing some very interesting jams, but the energy level visibly decreased as the crowd thinned out. When I left around 1:30am the crowd had decreased by more than half.
My first encounter with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was a great one. The fact that this band takes from many influences is readily apparent, yet its sound stands alone as unique. There are few bands that convey this level of energy during a performance. No doubt about it, these guys are having fun. While their music is somewhat difficult to digest, it crackles with originality and youthful energy. And although their sound may be more fitting to a jazz club audience, open minded music fans everywhere will be able to find something to appreciate in the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.
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