When three young musicians dedicate their lives to playing jazz, well—that alone would seem to merit a medal. When the trio tries to expand the music by playing an unusual repertoire that should expand the jazz audience toward indie-rock audiences, you ought to applaud. When the guys work diligently to improvise freely in the moment, what do you have?
Um, The Bad Plus or maybe Medeski, Martin & Wood?
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey can hardly help being compared to these more prominent (and major label) piano/bass/drum trios. They seem to be up to similar hi-jinks—covering Hendrix and Björk, setting up the occasional groove, trying to redefine how a jazz group functions. So what makes JFJO different—what makes them good?
Jake-Fred features three fine musicians—Brian Haas on piano, Reed Mathis on bass, and Jason Smart on drums—who can all play. But the most distinctive feature of the group is Mathis’s use of an octave pedal on his electric bass on many tunes. As a result, JFJO often takes on a moody fusion vibe, as if their bass player fell asleep and was replaced by Pat Metheny on downers. The opening tune—a cover of Jimi’s “Have You Ever Been to Electric Ladyland?”—features this spaced-out, atmospheric sound up front. I hesitate to put it this way, but—if you’re going to cover Hendrix, I think you daring the comment—Mathis playing an octaved-up bass is like Hendrix shrunk to size of a baby’s pinky toe. It strikes me as the equivalent of covering “Respect” with Marilyn Monroe as your lead singer. It is watered down and, frankly, bland.
It would seem that the fun of being a jazz group covering rock tunes would be in infusing jazz with the exuberance of popular music again. Lord knows jazz could use the shot of adrenaline. That is the kick of The Bad Plus—the way they bring rock energy to the piano trio and, simultaneously, can complicate a cover of a tune like Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” so that it incorporates serial classicism and free-jazz fervor.
Jake-Fred seems to do the opposite. Its cover of Björk’s “Isobel”—again featuring a molasses-like octaved bass—is subtly covered but flat as shaken ginger ale. The hottest moments result from Haas’s ostinato bass line, but that merely makes you want to scream at Mathis—“Hey, dude! That’s the bass part! Turn off the freakin’ octave pedal!” Their cover of The Flaming Lips’ “The Spark That Bled” begins with the pop pizzazz of Billy Joel in a bad mood. You listen, simply missing the Wayne Coyne’s sense of psych-pop fun and frolic. By the end, Haas seems to be channeling some kind of cocktail pianist.
How does the group fare with more richly melodic pop? The Jakes’ take on Brian Wilson’s “Wonderful” is perfectly pleasant. But what do they add to the tune beyond what Brian Wilson has already flawlessly presented? Zilch. Wilson’s music is nothing if not harmonically rich, yet the Jakes don’t really improvise on the tune. Smart plays some nice mallet and cymbal accompaniment, sure, but this recording is 230 seconds of straight reading. I don’t get it. These guys are supposed to a kind of “create in the moment” jam band, but this track is Dullsville. The last track is a live version of John Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun”. They neatly reorder the rhythm a couple times, turning it into a short suite, but when Mathis gets around to playing the refrain on his octaved bass toward the end, the whole enterprise seems pretty fully exposed as shtick again. This is the big live track, man, and still: no improvising, no unusual energy, no remarkable invention. They don’t reharmonize the tune the way Brad Mehldau might, they don’t swing it, they don’t drop a N’awlins funk behind it. Nuthin’.
The Jakey-Freds find energy when they allow themselves to play with a little rhythmic funk. The Mathis original, “The Maestro”, has a popping little groove, as the piano and non-octaved electric bass play in tight coordination on the head. The middle section opens up like a ballad and then gets most interesting when Haas lets some of his classical training show by moving up and down the acoustic keyboard with a Bartokian angularity. The unison passage between bass and piano returns. Satisfying, if only over three-plus minutes. “Santiago” gets tasty—if more delicate—rhythmic play from Haas, and “Halliburton Breakdown” is intricate, generating moments of piano-electric bass unison that bring to mind Chick Corea with Stanley Clarke.
But that defines the problem with this record as well as anything. It’s best moments are not new at all. JFJO doesn’t break new ground. Rather, it stumbles over newer ground and only gets its footing when it simply lets its members play—fast, loud, funky, bluesy, whatever. But those best moments are merely fun, not fresh. And much too few and far between on this disc.
The most interesting moments are on the non-pop covers. JFJO’s version of “Fables of Faubus” actual swings and stretches out a bit. Haas brings a touch of Fats Waller to the well-known Mingus tune, as the track bounces and smiles without the grand effort or preciousness of the rock covers. More fascinating may be the trio’s abstracted version of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way”. They have slowed the tune way down and give it a simplified set of impressionistic harmonies. And while there is, again, no set of solos per se, the group interaction in this spaced-out middle is fairly delicious.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has made vastly better records. But this one—produced by noted New York buzzmaker Joel Dorn and hyped as their calling card in the Bad Plus Sweepstakes—suggests that JFJO has been pushed to fit a mold that isn’t theirs. I can’t blame that goofy octave-pedal bass on Mr. Dorn, true. And in the end, the trio itself is on the cover of the record. But the cover of the New York Times Arts & Leisure section? They’re not ready yet.