When asked about the innovative collaboration between Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, John Lewis, the Modern Jazz Quartet pianist, reputedly responded, “I don’t know what it is, but it’s something.” This is probably the most honest response to innovative music, because musicians who push proverbial (apocryphal?) musical boundaries often times aren’t sure of “what it is” either, and it may be the best, most honest response to the music of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.
The Fred, as fans sometimes call the band, consists of keyboardist Brian Haas, bassist Reed Mathis, and drummer Jason Smart. Their brand of redneck jazz (as Haas once called it) is jazz in the most traditional, most New Orleans sense, meaning it relies on group improvisation, gets better the more the audience participates, and is thoroughly impression/mood-centered, rather than tightly melody-centered. Their shows are a combination of the Grateful Dead’s organic, unscripted performances, King Crimson’s aggressive sound and abandon of traditional musical structures, Herbie Hancock’s blending of musical styles and elements in search of true/honest expression, and the Jazz Messengers’ simple love of music and performance.
The current trio line up is a two-and-a-half-year-old stripped-down version of the original septet line up, whose founding members included both Haas and Mathis. “Stripped-down,” however, does not mean emaciated, for their sound is big and rangy, with more in common with trios like Rush, Foo Fighters, or the Jimi Hendrix Experience than other lighter sounding jazz trios (think of Diana Krall’s trio, or even the great Nat King Cole Trio).
The band’s Belle Isle Brew Pub show was a welcome, late-hour addition to the home-range leg of their current western swing. These close-to-home shows have become more and more rare and relished as the band has begun to make quite a name for itself on the Eastern Seaboard and the West Coast, where they pack clubs alone or playing with artists such as Laurie Anderson, Mike Clark, the Charley Hunter Quartet, or The Slip, in addition to drawing crowds at music festivals as various as South by Southwest, the New Orleans Jazz Festival, the High Sierra Music Festival, and Berkfest.
On this night, just ten minutes after ESPN’s rebroadcast South Korea’s dramatic victory over the highly-touted Spanish team in the World Cup, the band hit the stage and Haas announced their first tune as an improvisation entitled, “We Love the World Cup”, a title suggested by Smart. “Everybody, help us out and think ‘soccer,’” Haas quipped as the band launched into a meditative eight-minute run of call and response between Haas and Mathis, Haas and Smart, Smart and Mathis.
With their format of keyboards, bass, and drums, Jacob Fred naturally seems to invite comparisons with Medeski, Martin & Wood, a band for whom the boys have a tremendous amount of respect. The comparison, however, can’t be driven too hard. While both bands rely on complex interplay between very able musicians, Jacob Fred does not serve up Jimmy-Smith-funky-chicken-shack jazz.
Haas began his musical odyssey as a classically-trained pianist, and even started on the competition/festival circuit that weeds out hopefuls for a handful of prime spots in the classical world. “I found that approach so constricting,” Haas said. “It just took the life right out of the music.” He subsequently dropped out of the classical rat race and helped form the Fred. The classical training certainly comes through in keyboard lines that switch between an old Rhodes and a melodica, and seem to effortlessly shift between Thelonius Monk, Jimmy Smith, Fats Waller, Beethoven, Eric Satie, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Philip Glass, and Ray Manzarek.
Mathis is a jazzman in the best and fullest sense of the word. His performances slide quickly between nice and easy walking lines, slap, and fingered rhythms. With an array of effects pedals on the floor, he ends up playing bass like Adrian Belew plays the guitar, with many bent notes, odd intervals, and endangered chords, creating an eerie, beautiful tapestry of sound, at times very akin to John Coltrane’s sheets of sound and at other times more subdued and heart-felt like a David Gilmore guitar solo. (For a revealing interview with Mathis, see jambase.com)
Backing Haas and Mathis is Smart’s driving, rhythmically varied drumming. Though he can play Billy Martin-like backbeats, Smart seems fonder of the Jack Dejonette/Tony Williams school of backbone beat keeping, which is not to say Smart simply marks a slavish tempo. Rather, he creates a rhythmic reference point for Haas and Mathis as they explore tonal and atonal undiscovered countries. Like the best drummers, though, Smart is savvy enough to make his instrument musical, as well as rhythmic, using fills to compliment and sometimes initiate radical changes of direction in the band’s music of the moment.
On this night, Jacob Fred’s two sets ranged from the driving “Grub Ridge Stomp”, about one of the band’s favorite camping spots in Indiana, to the sweet “Arrival”, a song about the birth of a child, to the celebratory “Good Energy Perpetuates Good Energy”, a hold-over from the band’s days as a septet, to the newer, sublime composition, “Pacific”. This last piece featured Mathis at his psychedelic best, tweaking strings and working pedals, as he recreated whale songs on the bass. The bands final number was a fan favorite from their Self is Gone (2000) disc, “Tunjito”. The boys’ vibe was humming on this tune as they stretched what normally is a 10-minute exploration of theme, mood, and image, into a 15-minute stretch through all types of musical styles that have influenced the band. Haas even pulled a Sonny Rollins trick out of the bag when he started off one of his solos by inverting the song’s theme and playing it backwards. During this last number, somebody from the audience called out, “Hey, don’t hurt yourself up there!” Good advice for a young band that’s playing “what it is” like nobody else . . . on this planet, at least.