Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey | 11.08.03 | Cafe Du Nord | San Francisco, CA

Round the world and home again
That's the sailor's way
Faster faster, faster faster

The suits are a nice touch. The Marsalis clan shouldn't be the only ones looking sharp in the jazz game anyway. Still, it gives one pause to see the Jacob Fred lads saunter on stage in suits. If ever there was a band that warranted the phrase "shaggy" it's JFJO; I mean that in the rumpled, chilled out way and in the Scooby Doo sense, for both groups have their mystery machines and meddle with the sensibilities of town's folk wherever they ramble. They are, after all, on an Odyssey, a long wandering full of shifts in fortune and unpredictable turns of celestial cards. In San Francisco, however, the deck is stacked in their favor as those with the ears to hear, truly hear, gather in greater numbers every time they drop anchor on our shores.

There's no earthly way of knowing
Which direction we are going
There's no knowing where we're rowing
Or which way the river's flowing

I tuck expectation into a paper sack and leave it by the door on the way in. One aspect of the Fred that can always be counted on is a different show, often vastly different, than the last one you saw. Following their movements in the past year, one comes to know an evolutionary beast with three heads, three mighty hearts. They want to grow so much you can see the pain of it etched on them. While the feeling of never being fully satisfied can be like an itch you can never scratch, it can also be a constant reminder that there's always, always, always more to know, new ways to be, fresh trails just behind the brush. What I hear these days is an embrace of unadulterated beauty. Noise and chaos have their place but in compositions like "Slow Breath, Silent Mind" (just one of many dynamos to emerge recently from drummer Jason Smart), they fold themselves into a larger schema, one that looks into the abyss and slaps around the worst stuff there with light and love and compassion.

A stately opening befitting the suits is gently dismantled 30 seconds in by Brian Haas. His long, possessed fingers were meant for pianos, grand and otherwise. Strings and hammers fall down stairs, flirt with madness and then climb towards gossamer skies. Each fluctuation occurs by logic available only to Haas and his collaborators. He gives voice to Nibbles the Squirrel and a skeeball on the ocean, the animate and inanimate gaining a tongue through his body. He creates dub tones hitherto unknown on acoustic piano, which give way to a Dave-Brubeck-on-bathtub-crank attack. His back to the audience, he focuses inward so that the notes can come through him, creation working with a rubber mallet and a wild mop of hair.

Du Nord is a classy place, discreet candlelight and deco-inspired chandeliers, dark woods and brass fixtures. This is the second acoustic performance the band has done here in less than six months. The crowd has swelled nicely and this time they don't hang back from the stage. They want to get this music all over them, make the journey with the performers.

Since Jacob Fred keeps a child's mind towards their work, I know that familiar compositions will emerge in fresh clothes. During the first set there's a new intelligent restraint I haven't heard before. They are discovering the compact joys of harnessing good things into smaller forms. Anyone who doesn't appreciate that, those who moan when a tune isn't epic length or improvisationally complex, surely isn't aware of how challenging saying less is. Nor are they a very good listener. It takes discipline to find out what does and doesn't need saying. They are finding the right mix of beauty and sadness for their punch bowl. And yes, it's still spiked. And how.

Is it raining, is it snowing
Is a hurricane a-blowing

"This is a song that's been on the radio lately and it's changing the world wherever it's heard," Brian Haas explains. What emerges after a minute or so of circling is Outkast's "Hey Ya!" revisioned. Their version takes what may be THE pop song of the year to a chop shop and strips off all the chrome and leather, revealing a grand nastiness at the root. It'd be some gimmicky shit if their affections weren't so sincere. This is what talented dudes do when a song worms its way into their brain. This is just the JFJO singing along in their native tongue.

As often happens at their shows, I lose track of individual members, soaking in the whole rather than picking out any one part. So, when Reed Mathis reached out with his bass on "Vernal Equinox" it was like a peck on the cheek from an old friend. Reed's playing brings new tastes to our tongues, spices brought back from soundings deep into space. His voice is a fuzzed "howdy" to intelligent life in the universe. Tonight, he brings playfulness into what may the Fred's loftiest tune. Heard him hit anguish and undiluted joy on this composition in the past. This time his strings smile, wink, spring to their feet. He never tries to emulate anyone (though he's a bona fide fan of many) and in that differentiates himself from most other bassists. The perverse part is the longer he plays the more HIS sound will inspire imitators.

They close the first furlong with a reminder that if they wanted to, the traditional jazz world could be their oyster. If they just set their sights lower, aimed for less, settled like our culture always tells us to. As Harry Connick Jr. says in Hope Floats, we're instructed to take what we love and twist it until money comes out. Of course, by then, we've forgotten what it was we loved about it in the first place. This flirtation with the mainstream is a punchy showcase for Jason Smart's limber chops, who brings a woodpecker clack and big woods thud to a good beat you prance to. It must be fun to show that what they do is a choice. They could take the road more traveled, play wineries and mainstream jazz festivals, but that'd require them to strain against the grain of originality marbled into them. That's something I don't see happening. Ever.

Not a speck of light is showing
So the danger must be growing
Are the fires of Hell a-glowing
Is the grisly reaper mowing

"Lovejoy" by William Reed Mathis kicks off the second leg. This night it holds a terrifying intensity, a great wail without walls. Their passion makes me want to rush the stage and throw money at them as I'd seen done at a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan concert. Contact with greater forces makes one want to dump their worldly possessions, aid in some way the survival of the people making these sounds. Or maybe we understand for a moment that holding onto what we have is fleeting. Larger forces simmer under the world we call real and Jacob Fred never fails to remind me of that.

I'm guessing the band recently acquired (or rediscovered) Pat Metheny's debut, Bright Size Life, because they do both the title cut and "Broadway Blues," an Ornette Coleman composition, from it. A trio session, it slots in well with their angular, shifting tone. And as a fellow Midwesterner, Metheny understands the open country of their homeland and how to wrangle those images into song. They also do Coltrane's "Central Park West." All this flirtation with established material signals a fresh desire to tie their own catalog, their own playing, into traditional circles. Earlier they seemed anxious to distance themselves from anything that wasn't purely them. Now they understand they can be their own men AND pay homage to what has come before. They lose nothing in the process and gain some truly amazing tunes to jam on. Coleman's blues identify the indefatigable nature of those scales and their primal contribution to jazz. JFJO discovers a sprightly bounce in Ornette's number, a whimsy that makes me want to draw animation for the Fred's music, fill four-color panels with Crumb-esque monkey men engaged in all manner of dippity-do.

Yes, the danger must be growing
For the rowers keep on rowing
And they're certainly not showing
Any signs that they are slowing

Later, they lead the audience in organized hand clapping exercises. People play along because it would be churlish to resist. They take what's available and craft new shapes. I firmly believe you could give these three a tin can, some rusted wire, a pouch of assorted marbles and a half-cannibalized board game and within minutes they'd fashion a fort, a boat, and a satellite with parts to spare. Some are born with that kind of imagination. It's a lust for life, palpable, embracing AND bracing. They keep us awake and give us an offbeat to march to. In San Francisco at least, folks are learning this by and by. You can see it on the faces, stumbling out into the fog, laughing soft and low, gig over and everyone feeling like they've seen something real, something true, something delightful. These are the days of Jacob Fred. Not everyone knows it yet but they will. By and by.

Words by: Dennis Cook
Images by: Yael Dahan
JamBase | West Coast
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[Published on: 11/27/03]

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