Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey | 03.30.04 | Yoshi's | Oakland, CA

Excavate inside the chest of one Jacob Fred and you'll find a delicate mechanical heart, precise and intricate, beautiful in its complex simplicity, etched with eloquent carvings, a tightly wound spring driving the life thump, pressing oil and blood into robust limbs. They live towards a purpose, to engage with music in a way that elicits inarticulate joy from the listener. Assembled from three pieces and the odds 'n' ends of a thousand before them, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey comes together to function as one body, one breath. Out west, near the water, they demonstrated again to the attentive, softly slack-jawed audience at Yoshi's, that after 10 years, their heart, that shared muscle, is beating stronger and truer than ever.

JFJO by Jaci Downs
In a night that would include appearances from Philadelphia free jazz flag waver Elliot Levin (sax, flute and Cecil Taylor running mate on last year's dense, wild Opportunities & Advantages), delicate readings of Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard and a visit from Martin Fierro (saxophonist who appears on the Dead's Wake of the Flood and Mars Hotel albums as well as being a member of Zero and the Sir Douglas Quintet) it was still the triplicate core that lingered when the lights come up. One can walk around all day saying that the JFJO are special but being in their presence, adrift in their atmosphere, is a whole other kettle of fish. Seeing them in the acoustically sound, classed-up surroundings of Yoshi's just makes it easier to focus on that special ness. Prior to meeting these young cats two years ago I'd sort of given up on jazz. It was too much work, too little return. For every good gig I attended, three would be the same old same old; well rehearsed, authentically played but missing any sparks. Technique ain't everything and it's no substitute for risk taking, challenging compositions, playfulness, hell, even tenderness. Anyone can be a bebop robot but to make that monster dance takes more than chops.

Enter Jacob Fred. Even in their earlier full band-with-horns, funk-themed incarnation you could see how the gangly youth might grow into the men celebrating their tenth anniversary; the delicious mix of reverence and irreverence, chocolate dipped funny bones and high minded spirituality, all there in seed form. They're craftsmen who've chosen to maintain their whimsy instead of tossing it in the dusty reaches of their toolbox. In them one hears whispers of Bill Evans AND Frank Zappa, George Gershwin AND George Duke, John Coltrane AND Black Flag. Whether the jazz establishment acknowledges it or not, punk and funk happened and those strains mingle with the suits and hi-hats now. The Fred embodies this sea change. Despite a faith in their tradition they are far less dogmatic in following the well-hewn path. At times their reach overstretches their grasp but I'd rather hear yearning than resignation in any artist. They are their own sweet thang and it's a gas to see their name sitting proudly beside James Carter, the Bad Plus and Elvin Jones on the marquee outside.

Jason Smart by Jaci Downs
Only recently have they really incorporated the jazz canon as such into their schema. So, when they open with Branford Marsalis' "Roused About" (a sprightly romp off The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born) it's kinda strange. JFJO are composers, shell makers for the hermit crabs crawling around jazz-dom, as much as they are musicians. Even if one speaks the language well it's better to actually have something to say. Stacked up next to their work, it shows that Jacob Fred is part of a continuum. Having solidly established their identity they can go about the business of dipping a toe into other waters. And like the best of their brethren, they remind us why jazzsters do each other's tunes, how that reinvigorates a piece and exposes the yellow brick road that lays behind them. At first they play Branford purdy but an inner twitch compels them to break things, open them up and poke the entrails with a stick. Some might call it divining.

On acoustic bass, Reed Mathis hides in the musculature, his usual front-and-center wordless howl tempered. The foundation solidity of Jason Smart marks him as a drummer the doctrine starched Marsalis Family could get down with, though elsewhere he's hands-on toe-tapping out. Smart is too good for someone so young and I wonder what lifetimes his spirit has lived before coming to rest in his scruffy bearded frame. Both are dressed in short sleeve plaid shirts and tan workman's pants, refugees from Steinbeck's Tortilla Flats. They contrast with Brian Haas at the big piano in his dark suit, crazy Ludwig Van lock's bobbing like a follicle metronome.

They will get around to playing lovely and low but not until they tackle Coltrane's "Central Park West" late in the set. Until then they tilt the magnetic pull 90-degrees, pulling westward towards the "Pacific" an inarguable highlight of the evening. It always lets them coax so many weird angled noises from their instruments, especially Mathis on electric bass, pedal-to-the-metal effects making the dolphins nearby prick up their ears and jump and splash and cry back to him. The light reflected from the shiny surface of his bass flashes on faces at the front tables, spotlighting the open mouths and bobble head abandon he inspires. They possess the same aquatic sense as Tangerine Dream, a facility with that element that allows them to transform another element (air) with skillful vibration into liquid. The metal strands of Smart's brushes are the first drops and the ghost circus melodica from Brian punctures the clouds bringing the storm closer to land so we can all get wet.

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