JACOB FRED JAZZ ODYSSEY | YOSHI'S

In St. Augustine’s model of Creation a word is spoken and all that is rises out of nothing. This is big “C” creation, life, the universe and everything. In Confessions he lays out this trinity as an explanation for the Christian scheme of things with God the Father speaking the word, the Holy Spirit carrying it along and Jesus Christ being the summation of the Creator’s master plan. Dragging these lofty schemas down to a jazz nightclub might seem an impossible task yet the holy modal hoedown of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey did just that on a September night in Oakland.

Like always, I arrive at the show early. Hours early, in fact, but this is Jacob Fred and I’m excited. Honest to God, twinge in the tummy excited. This band is so open, so ready to embrace circumstance, so in the bloody moment that one never knows what might unfold in a night with them. And that, boys and girls, puts a giddy-up in my get-along, I tell you what. That they are also playing one of THE great music halls on this spinning blue globe just makes me want the minutes until showtime to gallop along faster. Every band you love should be lucky enough to play Yoshi's at least once. Luxurious surroundings, dynamite grub, super sweet acoustics, big open ceilings yet still intimate. It is a real honest space for art to happen before your eyes and the boards of its stage hum with the footsteps of those that have played here before.

I slide into a seat stage-side right behind Reed Mathis's upright acoustic bass. Eyeing its curves, I’m lost in the red shadows of its sensual wooden form. This type of low-key fetishism stems from a longtime love affair with musical instruments. No matter how many shows I see there’s still a happy buzz that comes from just staring at the stage set-up, letting the eye drop lazily over the contours of the gear. It is part of my own concert going ritual. It is that moment where I ponder how inanimate objects can spring to life under human hands and bring forth sound and life from nothingness. I repeat the word ‘nothingness’ inside my head, a mantra to clear the mind’s pallet.

A muddle of cables and effects boxes rests below Reed’s stool. One of the pedals is shaped like a classic '70s gas pedal I once owned, a big chrome foot with rubber grip on top. I convince myself that this is the wah-wah pedal since I so badly want it to be. In truth I haven’t a clue. Brian Haas' melodica rig sits atop the Steinway and Sons baby grand at the other end of the stage. Jason Smart's drum rig is tight, compact with just enough firepower to make something serious happen in the right hands. And feet, too. His dynamic approach to rhythm reminds me of how the whole body is involved in trap percussion. His moves are never casual yet there’s a bit of dance in his frame. It is the control of the ballroom dancer gliding with the music over freshly polished floors. It looks effortless because that’s how masters and future masters make it look. This trio all convey this same vibe, an unspoken promise that they are dedicated to the full course ahead of them. If they should stall it will not be a failure of spirit that stops them from becoming what they were meant to be in this life. I guarantee you that.

A tasteful dimming of the house lights and the lads settle in. The announcer flubs their name in a loud voice introducing the “Jacob Fred Jazz Orchestra.” A band possessed of less humor might have snapped at this slight but I catch them exchange a silent smiling sigh with each other. From where I watch from behind the back of the bass I can only see Brian’s face. The piano is obscured completely, so as they launch into the opening improvisation it seems the notes are flowing directly from him. His mouth hangs open and sounds emerge in orgasmic waves. As the other two musicians join in I begin to think of Augustine’s paradigm, the way a trio of efforts is required to make things happen.

I’m transported to college days and a course in the autobiographical tradition. Lofty shit to be sure. One of the key things most people don’t know is that folks just didn’t write about their own lives before St. Augustine. It just wasn’t done. But then the former party boy turned strict church father goes and does it. He surely wasn’t the last but his navel was the first one gazed upon in prose. I think how every act of artistic invention is both a selfish act and one designed to enrich other’s lives. I wonder what the tunes, the spine of this electric jazz body, say about these three guys. Is “Thelonius Monk Is My Grandmother” autobiography or fiction or both. Only minutes into the proceedings and my head is a swim.

Turning back to the music I think how “Jacob Fred” is this thing that comes into being when the three of them unite. It is the fourth member of the Jazz Odyssey. Brian speaks the word and the enormous breath of Reed’s acoustic instrument, a displaced lung from a blue whale, rising and falling, pushes it along. That makes Jason the flesh in the equation. His pulse, his constancy, his sturdiness below the shimmering barrage of Haas and Mathis gives the music a stability it might otherwise lack. None of these roles are fixed and over the course of hours they will trade places many times in this creational flood.

The opener, a tune later identified as “Wow, It’s Great To Finally Be Playing At Yoshi’s,” gives way to a “Vernal Equinox” full of alien transmissions. Brian’s melodica moves with the romantic sway of Astor Piazzolla but a Piazzolla playing in the heart of a jungle. It is a tussle with beauty and wildness that emerges again and again throughout the show. They possess the same passion for willful, fearless sonic plunder that the Art Ensemble of Chicago pioneered. And also the AE of C’s sweet tooth for lyricism, too. Listening to the JFJO I often find myself thinking of Rilke’s poem about a panther in a zoo cage. He wrings such beauty out the sadness and contained power of the great cat pacing his cell. Like all the best art going, this band blows past the limits of one medium and splashes into all the others. It is evocative and alive and a quick bolt of inspiration to the synapses.

It’s also a bit scary at times. During “Son of Jah” Reed coaxes an animal’s cry from his bass. It is a sound of wordless grief and passion, a moan of organic empathy for a truth beyond definition. I defer to Augustine for a more apt description:

"Wondrous depth of Thy words! whose surface, behold! is before us, inviting to little ones. Yet are they a wondrous depth, O my God, a wondrous depth! It is awful to look therein, an awfulness of honour and a trembling of love."

Things lighten with “Hover,” a song about leaving one’s body that carries some of the same mirth one finds in Ellington’s small group recordings. The “Monk’s Dream” that was teased in the opening improv finally shows up. It is a whacked out ride through a pink tunnel, an audio version of "It’s A Small World," a conveyer belt full of cream pies and mousetraps. I love how this band picks up on the “Three Blind Mice” nursery rhyme snippet inherent in Monk’s composition. And each time the humor starts to peak they swerve to play it straight. Shockingly straight. With most of the electricity removed from their sound it becomes apparent that if they wanted to take a shot at the traditional piano jazz market they could eat Jacky Terrason up for brunch.

Afterwards, Brian points to the piano and says in an awed whisper, “McCoy Tyner has touched this piano.” They have the right kind of reverence for the past. Not so much that it holds them back from the future but enough to know that they stand on the shoulders of giants. I wonder if the ‘Ancient Creatures’ in the title of this current tour refers to the jazz greats they admire or is it bigger than that? Is it all that has come before, the collective unconscious of the world and man? I think to ask them about it at set break but I prove too shy to push such a philosophical foot in their door when the time comes. The question lingers for me still.

A dusty trail, Aaron Copeland cinematic “Grub Ridge Stomp” follows and then a tasty romp through the aforementioned “Thelonius Monk Is My Grandmother,” which causes me to coin the phrase ‘wigtime’ to describe the bugged out ragtime feel of their playing. “Calm Before The Storm,” a terrific new tune from Jason closes the set. As Smart’s fingers caress the skin of his snare I hear the echo of Jack DeJohnette’s manual percussion, that same need to be in direct contact with the drum. It is a mesmerizing song that makes me rush over to Jason afterwards to gush praise upon him.

Outside during the break, I watch the cocktail and dinner date crowd depart in jewel colored sedans. They talk little but smile from the exposure to such pure energy and invention. Many crowd the lobby bar and toss down pretty drinks in arty glassware. I notice a few dreadlocked fans tucking into the shadows around Jack London Square, their lanky silhouettes lit by flashes of Bic fire. I talk music with bands handing out flyers and cannot stop myself from rhapsodizing about what I’ve just witnessed. ‘Heard’ is too small a word for this. I want to bear witness to the power and the glory. I babble at a frightening pace and manage to scare off at least two people with my zealotry. I consciously calm myself down and go back inside.

The second set follows quickly and despite an invitation to the early show audience to return many do not. This time I’m at the opposite end of the stage directly next to Brian Haas. Before the lights dim again I am struck by how thick with dust the piano is. I wonder how the venue lets that happen, especially on a show night, and barely resist the urge to lean onto the stage and use a shirt in my bag to clean it up for Brian.

“Lovejoy” bursts upon us, reminding us with uncut splendor of the day-to-day gift of being alive. I tune into the clack of Brian’s long, slender fingers on the melodica keys. There is a Gnostic sensuality to this piece that makes it shine very brightly. As if to balance this higher thought the next tune is a stunning take on Wayne Shorter’s “Prince of Darkness” a darkly romantic chiller supposedly written about Miles Davis. Brian’s solo is like a sped up piece of 35 mm film. Not comic at all, it is furiously beautiful and Reed counters with a supple solo of his own that evokes the Richard Davis of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. The “Muppet Babies” make an appearance, bouncing with the friskiness of Jelly Roll Morton on good crank. Before “There Is No Method” we’re told, “Create your own religion, your own guru inside. It’s better that way.” This rendition really lets Mathis catch some serious air. He seems to find some secret sorrow hidden in his instrument. He wails in a vocalization that mirrors the ghostly sound of the duduk, a small 3,000-year-old wooden oboe popular in Armenian folk music. He wails and wails in a voice wholly human yet emanating from a conglomeration of wood and wires.

Sax maniac Skerik comes up for an improvisation they dub “Sushi Jazz” in deference to their surroundings. The newly formed quartet bubbles with a frothy ‘50s smoothness shaken with pure blue flake funk. It is the living manifestation of the truism that the whole exceeds the total of its parts. They push and pull at one another until they just collectively know it’s time to stop. I make a note to look up the word ‘improvisation’ in Mister Webster’s good book when I get home.

As the audience shouts suggestions for the encore I sit back and wait for whatever happens. I am at ease with the muses driving Jacob Fred and will go wherever their winds blow us. When they settle on “Daily Wheatgrass Shots Have Burned A New Pathway To My Brain” I give a tiny leap in my seat. Brian advises us about healing ourselves and being our own doctor. A night with the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is a lot like a lot of things. In parts saintly, secular in others. Maybe even a spot holistic like Chinese medicine, which tries to align the body and the spirit through herbs and movement and needles placed with care. This music has the joint crunching pop of Tui nah (pronounced "twee nah"), a traditional form of massage designed to stimulate the flow of chi in the body. As energy is released, blocked places made clear, it can hurt a bit even as it heals. The ferocious pace of this “Wheatgrass” makes my head spin like an Asian chiropractor has just forcefully yanked my dome from its stem. I am light-headed and deliriously grinning. Once again I've been worked over by my favorite jazz band and I feel better already.

Dennis Cook
Photos by:Super Dee
JamBase | East Bay
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[Published on: 10/3/02]

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