A Chat with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey

By: Dennis Cook

JFJO by Jeremy Charles
JFJO began the new leg of their summer tour this week. They perform this weekend on Saturday, June 23, at the Stranger Danger Music Festival in Chicago, and Sunday, June 24, at the Rochester International Jazz Festival in Rochester, NY. See full tour schedule here.

No one ever had to tell John Coltrane to innovate or fearlessly move beyond what had been in his work into something new. No one told Miles Davis to explore hitherto unknown reaches of texture and space during In A Silent Way or to entangle himself in electricity so ferociously in the early 1970s. The real deal pioneers of jazz have always just gone their own way, often at odds with prevailing winds, particularly in terms of sales and popular standards, following the music wherever it might lead them. Tulsa born Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is cut from this same sturdy cloth, their own men since day one and no less so 18 years into the enterprise.

“What I love about my band is we’re an exception to the machinery,” says keyboard marvel Brian Haas, the one through-line in JFJO’s many incarnations.

The Race Riot Suite
The current JFJO lineup is comprised of Haas (piano), Josh Raymer (drums), Chris Combs (lap steel), Jeff Harshbarger (double bass) and most recent addition horn player Mark Southerland, and the focus of the quintet’s energies of late has been 2011’s The Race Riot Suite, a Combs composed long-form work based on the real estate grabbing, violence riddled story of the 1921 Tulsa race riot. It’s heady stuff, right up there with any major work in jazz’s long history of sculpting real, painful tales into song, but also warmly inviting, a seduction with teeth that grabs wisely from jazz’s varied factions and time periods to create something genuinely new. Bolstered by one of the finest horn lines ever assembled – Southerland, Jeff Coffin (Bela Fleck, Dave Matthews Band), Steven Bernstein (Sex Mob, Levon Helm), Peter Apfelbaum (Hieroglyphics, Don Cherry) and Matt Leland (a founding JFJO member) – JFJO stomps boldly throughout this captivating set. It’s the kind of thing Wynton Marsalis has shot for his whole career but rarely achieved with as much storytelling grace or blood in its veins.

In a show of JFJO’s nigh-endless mutability, the band recently released a solo piano interpretation and a remix of said interpretations (pick ‘em up here), and what’s clear after nearly two decades is making predictions about Jacob Fred is a fool’s bet. The yen to shape-shift and the pleasures of trying on new forms remains strong in this unit, even as they learn to adhere to a more structured program than at any time in their past.

We pulled up a chair with Brian Haas to discuss the Odyssey and where it finds itself today.

Brian Haas by Josh Miller
JamBase: How have you managed to maintain such a unique, non-music industry identity through the many years of this band? There must have been temptation at times to do middle-of-the-road jazz albums just to make some bread from the cocktail/armchair jazz fans.

Brian Haas: It’s said if you give yourself something to fall back on you will. That was advice that was given to me many times by crusty, local Tulsa geniuses. In the 18 year history of the band we’ve just never given ourselves something to fall back on. It’s always been about a singular musical vision that changes from album to album. Every album we make defines what the vision is during that time. We’re completely motivated by the albums, by the compositions, and that’s what we learned from all our heroes, people like Coltrane, Mingus, and Jason Moran. Every new album is the new learning curve for the ensemble and the fans.

JamBase: I can’t think of too many other modern jazz units worthy of comparison with the touchstones you cite, the people who will take the baton from Wayne Shorter, Herbie and other still active masters and move forward. It seems like you’re never held back by your past or feel you need to play to it.

Brian Haas: No, no, no, never. It’s always been based around the compositions and music, and in that way we’re Coltrane devotees for sure. Capitalism can be a lot of fun, and we’ve been very lucky with the people who’ve decided to manage and book this band over the years. It’s always been a communal, team effort with this ensemble. Right now our capitalism is based around Eric Dunn (manager) and Kevin Calabro (record label/promotions), and everything they do supports every single new piece we come up with, be it the The Race Riot Suite or the remix. I’ve read all the jazz history books, I know that part of the beautiful tradition that keeps jazz so fresh and lovely is changing who you spend time with, changing who you drink beer with, changing your lineup.

Mark Southerland
I’ve been very lucky – very blessed by the Spinal Tap gods – very blessed with the lineup changes. The current quintet with Southerland and Harshbarger – the big bears from Kansas City – is easily one of the most ferocious jazz bands on Planet Earth right now, I’m proud to say.

I’ve wondered for a long time if a regular horn player wasn’t in the destiny of this band.

The Race Riot Suite insisted on at least one horn, and when we knew we had the money saved up, the guarantees for last year were dialed in, and we knew could afford to have one horn, we knew it was gonna be Mark Southerland. It was unanimous. Harshbarger and Southerland play with each other in Kansas City regularly. They are each other’s right hand man, so it was effortless. Before Harshy joined the band a year before Mark – we call them Harshy and Southy; you have to give cute names to the big, massive warrior bears – he did a big sit-down with Southerland to see how it would affect their relationship, etc., and Southy said, “You absolutely have to join that band, and you have my blessing.” Just a little over a year later, Southy was in the band, too.

I’ve been living in Santa Fe, New Mexico full time, the two big bears live in Kansas City, and the two young blood, genius prodigies, Raymer and Combs, live in Tulsa, and it’s the most relaxed lineup we’ve ever had. We drink beer together every night. We go on hikes together. We truly enjoy each other’s company, and it really shows onstage.

That’s important, especially the longer a project goes on. It becomes less of an intangible and more of a prerequisite to enjoy your bandmates as more than musicians.

The Race Riot East Coast Album Release Tour
Exactly, man, and that’s why The Race Riots sound like they sound. Chris Combs wrote all those parts for specific humans. He didn’t write them to just throw into the air. He wrote each part for each player. We knew who was going to be on the record before he even finished writing it. Everything [Jeff] Coffin plays is for Coffin. Everything [Scott] Bernstein plays is for Bernstein. Everything for [Peter] Apfelbaum is for Apple. It’s like in the tradition of Ellington and Mingus, in that it was written for specific cats.

This brings up a key bit of JFJO’s reputation, which is that a number of people think this is your band, effectively the Brian Haas Band. But this huge work, probably the single most ambitious chapter in the JFJO catalog, was written and arranged by somebody other than you.

I didn’t write a note of it. I helped a little with arrangements, everybody did, but it was all Combs. Part of that reputation may be that I talk on the mic, but as far as the music we’ve made, like say at the start of the new quartet in 2009 even when a lot of that was my material and arrangements of standards, the approach onstage with Jacob Fred for all of its 18 years is based on democracy. It’s always been based on space and the awareness that if somebody needed to say something they should say it. If people are calling it Brian Haas’ band, then they just aren’t listening. It’s overt that this is a democracy. If people can’t hear the evolution and democracy going on then they just aren’t taking a deep breath and listening. But you know how it is in America, where music is nothing more than a fashion accessory to a lot of people.

It’s definitely a lifestyle accessory for many.

Chris Combs
For these people, it’s about the cult of personality. They complain about missing that one guy who thrashed around onstage or this other guy who did this thing they liked. If they could just close their eyes and use their ears, I think what we’ve accomplished, what we’re currently doing, and where we’re going with the ensemble they’d find it’s extremely obvious it’s a good thing. And that in some ways is a turnoff to some people. In some ways, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is just too good, and we’re gonna keep it that way.

People tend to adhere to what they know. They like familiarity and the comfort of the known. Part of the core of Jacob Fred is to never play to those sensibilities in any way, shape or form.

That’s the whole idea. Every record should be different, and every time we come to your town it should be different. We want to give our beloved fans a gift and not the same shit we gave them last time. Every time we come to their town – even with The Race Riot Suite – we make it different. We’re devoted to the original notion that jazz means risk and jazz means improvisation. It should be some gangster shit. If you’re not fucking up onstage – like Tony Williams says – you’re not playing jazz. Jazz is about pushing. It’s about spiritual devotion and discovery of self.

One of my first impressions of Jacob Fred was a musical equivalent to a whirling Dervish, an active form of wild, holy exultation even as you execute actual music. There is something worshipful about JFJO at their best that goes beyond guys picking up instruments and playing songs.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! Frankly, I don’t believe in religion but if I did my religion would be John Coltrane. We’re devoted to that original idea and so was Coltrane, that pushing forward and evolution – musical, spiritual and mental evolution, evolution on every scale. Coltrane wasn’t just interested in making a great, hit record. Coltrane was interested in jazz being his life yoga. And that’s the same drive for Jacob Fred.

I think we just made the most accessible record we’ve made in a very long time, but we didn’t do it on purpose. It came from the compositions, the changes, the evolution in our band. One of my favorite things about this band is that we’ve never pandered or catered to anyone.

I’m not sure there’s any real long term value in giving into to outside pressures. You see it all the time in music, where artists self-censor and shape things with intentions other than making good music just to get over in the mainstream. It’s a pervasive, corrosive dynamic that hurts music in the larger sense.

One thing I’ve noticed in Jacob Fred because we’ve had so many lineups – we’ve been an avant-garde trio, a Bill Frisell/Brian Blade country textural band, we used to rap, we had horns, then we didn’t, and now we have them again – and experimented with so many dialects that at this point, 18 years and 21 records in, we sort of have something for everybody. It’s a pretty wide, diverse fan base, and I’m continually surprised and honored by the people who have stuck with this crazy fuckin’ band for 18 years. It’s really been more positive than negative, I gotta say.

If music is something more profound to one than a lifestyle accessory, then it’s due a certain level of respect. Sticking with bands that mean something to us is part of that. Loyalty and time served factor into the equation.

JFJO in 2006
Absolutely. I am a lifer and so is everybody in the ensemble, and we’re proud to say that. I really owe a little bit of where I’m at and what I sound like and who I am to every single person that’s ever been a member of the ensemble, as well as everybody who’s ever written a word about it, or managed it, or street teamed it, or just worked it. The way we’ve been able to do this is with a lot of other people’s help. The only reason I’ve been able to fight becoming a fashion accessory is totally because of other people’s help, because there are so many people around this planet that believe in this band. Thousands of people have enabled me and the ensemble to get where we are right now.

It’s amazing and powerful when one realizes they aren’t alone in their questing, even though circumstances may often make one feel that way. It makes taking on something huge like The Race Riot Suite a tiny bit less daunting.

My favorite thing about The Race Riot Suite is how he took something so dark and made it accessible. At times it’s big band. At times, it’s Ellington…on acid…and Mingus…and he goes through all this history that ends up with “The Eye of the Dove,” the seventh movement and one of the greatest jazz pieces I’ve ever heard. He builds the whole The Race Riot Suite into an evolution. It’s a completely honest statement about such a dark, dark thing that happened in Tulsa, and Chris finds a way to make it relate to all the different jazz dialects we’ve had in the past 70 years, and then creates a new dialect at the end of the piece.

Is it possible to break this up or do you keep it all together when performing it live?

JFJO by Jeremy Charles
For awhile now, we’ve just been playing it straight through at every show. There’s so much room for improvisation, both as individuals and as a group. It’s different at every show, and it’s the most convincing thing this ensemble has ever done in its 18 years. It’s completely organized, codified, and crystal clear. It’s now about 90 minutes long when we perform it live, and I look forward to each and every one. It’s the best performance concept I’ve ever been involved in. It’s a pure joy!

That’s a striking difference to the guy and his cohorts who, at one time, would get onstage and the big thrill/lure was the absolute unknown that would be explored, the tightrope that one perhaps quietly hoped was greased.

That’s where the prayers [from The Race Riot Suite] come in. We still do free improvisation each night, and Combs wrote in these prayers that are completely improvised each time out. We do 3-4 of them per night. I think it’s well balanced because it draws on the free improv we used to do but at the same time it is very, very different. Now, at least I know the song order [laughs. In the old Jacob Fred days we’d call out titles, weave around, etc. Now, we know where and when the improvs will happen. It’s more structured, but I think it’s been refreshing for us and our audiences to have a mission. When the audience recognizes that mission and joins up, well, there’s nothing better. Mission successful.

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