Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Walking with Giants

[1 November 2004]

By Robert R. Calder

Odd Jazz I See?

The name of this trio (which is I gather supplemented on other performances off this present CD) is a joke, presumably a private one. The performers are the conservatory-trained pianist Brian Haas, the electric bassist Reed Mathis, and the drummer Jason Smart.

I don’t know the other work by this trio or related ensembles under the same name. I don’t need to, since I’m reviewing this CD, not giving some sort of quasi-biographical account of the careers of these men and the oddly-named ensemble they were on this date. The pianist is extremely accomplished and does interesting left hand things—expecially when the bassist goes over into heavily though not oppressively loudly electric guitar mode, or does other things not strongly bass.

The trio hail from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and are as technically accomplished as musicians from anywhere. They have been featured at Yoshi’s, a west coast club unknown till recently to this European, but suddenly famous on account of another label’s issues of performances by duly highly celebrated pianists recorded there. Purchasers of the present set can actually see the trio at Yoshi’s, on a DVD which comes with this set. It hasn’t caught up with me, but since it’s described as a ‘bonus’ the review disc will have to be the exclusive basis of the present discussion.

Brian Haas could well be a major jazz pianist, the notes report his classical training and even refer to “Beethoven’s ‘Second Piano Concerto’”—but why the quotation marks round the title of that Second Piano Concerto? It needs none. The fact that Mr.Hass has been a soloist in a public performance of that work does emphasise his technical accomplishment, but it’s not terribly relevant to the music here. He switched from performing Beethoven because, it’s said, he had stronger jazz inclinations. The potential buyer ought to know that these inclinations prevail absolutely here so far as company permits. This is a jazzman. The other two are also jazzmen, though the bassist seems to be a more limited soloist—Haas is just a standout. If the others had served simply as his accompanist sidemen I’d be very happy.

The trio’s integration is plain on a short opening track. On the second track the drummer accompanies a duo of piano and something that sounds more like an extremely electrified fiddle. The piece is a fair enough use for bass guitar, and a decent demonstration of Haas’s strong and sometimes walking left hand.

This is one of two CDs I’ve had for review this month on which the pianist shows uncommon fondness for the subterranean sonorities of the piano’s bottom keys. It’s also not the only new CD I’ve heard of late on which Indian sounds figure. According to those nice people at All Music Guide, Mr. Mathis uses quite a range of instruments, not just the bass that was all I was told about in what Hyena sent me. The fact that he doesn’t achieve all those effects simply on a version of electric bass isn’t after all surprising, since to have done all those different things with but the one axe implied an even more mind-boggling ingenuity than that genuinely on display here. When I say “ingenuity” I am, however, expressing a reservation. There’s something of a gap between the pianist’s musical creativity and the bassist’s fondness for variety of sounds. The compositions are all originals and bear names not so surprising given what the band is called. “Daily Wheatgrass Shots” is a minute and a half of piano, drums and guitar. “Nibbles” (a more feasible means of ingesting wheatgrass?) takes four minutes and has strong walking, even sea-bed walking left hand work by the pianist. Mr. Mathis alternates between guitar and a sort of high fiddle. “Skeeball over the Ocean” lasts a half-minute longer and has Indian elements and a jazz bridge. “The Arrival” (not everything’s that oddly named, but this portentous plain title may also be a joke) takes about the same time and is quirky with more fiddle-guitar. “Walking with Giants” has more India, some echo, and in nine and a half minutes includes some hints of Bill Evans and the blessed Jaki Byard and nursery rhyming melody. “Lola and Alice” resumes fiddle-guitar and has a little Bach and a little of the (rather sanctimonious than sanctified) “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sort of melody. Five minutes twenty seconds—since I had to find the timings myself.

“Muppet Babies Get Lost” has a cod ragtimey start and a boppish melody and I’m all for this sort of standard piano trio sound in non-standard mode. Three minutes, twenty-one seconds of delight. “Sean’s Song” reminds me of what little I know of Aaron Copland—I should think these three trying Charles Ives would, however, be dangerous! The game for these nearly five minutes is rhythmic elaboration. “Son of Jah” has wobbleboard sounds, as if this was what could be heard by Jah Jr. while still inside Mrs. Jah. There is a running figure in the piano, there are sounds like the screams the child might come to make when out and growing and playing with a balloon—before he bursts it. Mr. Haas’s left hand has some ostinato work and there’s a kind of jig. A proportion of the five and a half minutes of fun is filled with Mathis sound effects beautifully accompanied by piano and drums.

“Calm Before the Storm” opens with gentle bass and piano ballad, before—perhaps Mr. Haas gets into the Mathis act with his piano? Is this his storm, or brainstorm? After three minutes a jazz performance seems to begin, and when it seems it might not have begun after all, well, it seems to begin again. I suspect from the conclusion that Mr. Haas isn’t wholly innocent of Rachmaninov.

“As It Will Be” suggests cello, then sitar, then blues guitar, then fiddle over piano and tom-toms. “Perfect Wife’s Flannel PJs” lasts four minutes forty-four seconds, has a ragtimey stride section and is even neo-Monk. The 13th and final title is “Hover” and has some sort of electronics from Mr. Mathis, as well as vocalising guitar and funk guitar going in the direction of high-register, highly amplified fiddle. I see I neglected to note the duration of this suspension of sounds on the verge of being simply pop cliché. It did strike me that some of the other dozen titles did verge on the insufficiently interesting ridiculous now and then. There is perhaps more daftness than realised potential in this set, so if daftness is what you want….

Meantime, I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for different realisations of this trio’s considerable… further promise.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/jacobfredjazzodyssey-walking/