Music should be emotional. It should bypass our armor, burrow into us, make us feel something. The cerebral is all well and good but there's a reason they call it "intellectual exercise" (and we all know how much fun exercise can be...). When all the elements coalesce in a performance, when the compositions and the playing and atmosphere gel, there's a spark that reminds us why we're here, why we crawled from the oceans and became monkeys in the first place. It is a relative of that same electrical charge that jump-started the primordial ooze eons back. Live music. Add an "A" to the beginning of that phrase and you have the right idea. From the very first notes I heard from the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey I knew I was in the company of fellas walking that proud land. Rarely has that been more evident than on their acoustic tour document, Slow Breath, Silent Mind.

Taken from a series of shows the trio played last October and November, the disc culls the cream off the top. Unlike previous JFJO releases, this one finds them playing in other people's playgrounds more often than their own. Of the eleven cuts, seven are covers of pieces by the likes of John Coltrane, their grandmother Thelonious Monk, and band touchstone Wayne Shorter. Earlier it seemed the boys tried to avoid delving too deeply into the jazz canon, perhaps fearing they'd be lost in the sea of trios working the same stuff. And they are composers as much as they are players so there are always fresh notes to bring to fruition. Still, the acoustic setting and growing confidence find them tearing into a juicy slab of established masters, placing them right beside their own work. Where before they were standing on the shoulders of giants, now they walk side by side with them.

Things open with an alternately wistful and skip-dandy interpretation of Duke Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood." Reed Mathis plies his bass with a tender hand, making it sing as much as Betty Roche or any of the other ladies who put voice to Duke's compositions. By turns tender and gently bouncy, it comes at us like the gauze-shaded memory of a beautiful afternoon with someone we once loved but have since lost. Given the clear influence of Monk on this troupe it only makes sense they'd take a step backwards and visit Thelonious' primary influence. Makes a man dizzy to think about the other trains they might hop in his catalog (though "Lotus Blossom" and "Blues In Orbit" immediately pop up for consideration). Out of the gate, Reed provides ample proof that he just may be the most original bassist alive. He delves right into the inborn melancholy of Ellington, aided by Brian Haas' light handed piano and Jason Smart's deft touches on cymbals and brushes.

Their fascination with sound and shape informs every track. It is, put simply, intoxicating. Recorded in places that span both U.S. coasts, it signals what some of us already know: Every night with the JFJO is a good night, and each night can contain multitudes. One minute a misty rain falls from their fingers, the next you're traveling a hard pounding river under a full moon's light, a distant whistle sliding by. Close your eyes and you hear sirens and chimes. They might skid outside polite boundaries on "Nibbles" and then take a graceful swing back to center on Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring," which finds them exemplifying the active verbs in that title and putting a lil' hick in your giddy-up. And there's the title cut, one of many stirring tonal bluebirds of happiness to spring from the mind of Jason Smart. There are originals and there are originals. Over time "Slow Breath, Silent Mind" is going to join that canon we were talking about.

The first listen of this set came on a day when I rolled in from work, dog tired and drenched beyond belief by winter weather. The music in these grooves revitalized me, renewed me on a basic level. What Jacob Fred inspires in the listener transcends mere enthusiasm. It's a cause one feels in their spirit. And that's exactly the place their music rises from, a deep hollow where dark gives way to light and the new morning is cause enough for an impromptu sidewalk parade.

This release is limited to only a few hundred copies and then it's gone daddy gone. It is available from Kufala Recordings, a label dedicated to bringing out the finest in live recordings that testify to the true power of bands in the concert setting. They have also just released an electric set from JFJO called Symbiosis Osmosis, also a limited release. Sleep not on the killer tuneage from the shining sons of bebop, free love, and open-minded exploration.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | California
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[Published on: 1/29/04]

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