The constantly morphing new jazz trio moves into deeply atmospheric, electronic territory and dares you to follow.
There is no band under the “jazz” umbrella that is harder to corral than Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. The band’s latest, a collection of intriguing, detailed, daring soundscapes called Worker is no exception. I listen to it with a vivid fascination, mostly unable to put a narrative or simple set of descriptors to it.
And that is the album — and the band’s — strength. Formed 20 years ago by a group of University of Tulsa music majors who just wanted to play and maybe weren’t quite ready yet, JFJO had quick success. The line-up has shifted often over the years, with horn players coming and going, but mainly the group has been a groove-happy rhythm section that doesn’t particularly play by the rules. For instance, the current group on Worker consists of founding keyboard wiz Brian Haas, Joshua Raymer on drums, and Chris Combs on guitar and pedal steel. are they a Medeski, Martin, and Wood-style groove band? Eh, not really. Are they... forget it: let’s not try to make comparisons.
Historically, it’s worth noting that JFJO has recorded 25 albums, they’ve traveled all of the land, and they’ve recorded everything from Beethoven to Monk to Bjork. There is a voracious musicianship in the band and a desire to play everything, and the constant in their aesthetic is change.
So, here’s where the band is now.
Worker is a vast horizon of instrumental electronics that sketches both insistent themes and impressionistic moods. Raymer is a terrific drummer who deftly leads the band through groove material, complex poly-rhythms, and shifts in time signatures. He is player that a band could follow just about anywhere. On something like “Appropriation Song” he is crisp and hard and heavy like a rock drummer, hitting everything hard and accenting with force, but also leading the band from section to section of a song that shifts feels and time like a gamer moving from one world to another and back again. On this kind of material, the Fred is all about conviction and sound: Haas plays spitting synth lines that are raw, while Combs matches him moment for moment with a sound that is rock-loud and fusion-precise. Barely more than three minutes long, “Appropriation” doesn’t have time for much improvising. No one stretches out to blow over the theme.
That’s the norm on Worker. “Betmax” just announces a crazy theme that could have been on a late Return to Fovever record, but rather than wowing you with fusion-y fancy footwork, Jacob Fred pushes out a wall of crazy clashing sounds. Synth lines pile up, and smaller background effects litter the middle space, all while Raymer keeps it hones and grooving. The theme of “Betamax” is stick-in-your-head simple, and the band repeats it incessantly, but the clutter of cool sounds make it appealing. No solos, no noodling. But a heck of a wicked production vibe.
There’s also a lot of strange, weird stuff on Worker, material that flirts with the junk-drawer fun of Wilco’s famous Yankee Hotel Foxtrot while remaining moody and simple like Radiohead’s Kid A. Unlike those obvious indie-rock influences, though even the most atmospheric of these songs boast strong melodies. “Let Yourself Out” rings its melody on combs pedal steel, giving it a trawling intrigue, but it still land in your ear with spikes on its feet. “New Bird” is a slow, echoing groove, but its minor melody trades between synths and guitar with a beautiful inevitability, one line toggling into another like a pendulum moving very slowly.
I love the jarring shifts in dynamic on “Say Nothing”, with the band starting at full-tilt, then everything cutting out but Haas’s electric piano, only to charge into an even louder section in which Raymer is bashing as boldly as Bonham ever did — only to have him playing subtly a moment later as the composition shifts gears. These longer performance still don’t leave any space for jazz-type improvisations, as the band here is reaching for something wholly different.
Almost everywhere, Worker excels at creating texture and soundscape. The brief “Mesa” is little more than a tinkling palate cleanser between more flavorful courses, but it is nevertheless rich in tension and interest, with not just percussive bells but also chattering voices, a crescendo at a very high frequency, and all manner of synthesized rustlings that keep you wanting more. That it leads into the most intriguing track on the recording, “Better Living Through Competitive Spirituality” helps it too, as the bells of the shorter tune both introduce “Better Living” and even take over a part of that tune’s melody. It has a propulsive, human groove that is in short supply in this otherwise electronica dominated set, with Raymer pushing the band with an uptempo tango-ish feel.
My hunt for a good analogue to Worker nags at me. The main theme of “Hey Hey NSA”, stated on a slightly overdriven electric piano moves with the sluggish swing of some of the keyboard playing on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, which is one of the textures that the Fred leans toward here. But form that sound, the band shifts suddenly into a squall of rock guitar and synthesizers amped up on wildly ricocheting vibrato. And listening to the accompaniment reveals grooves that could only have come post-hip hop, the the shifting swamp of improvised funk comping on Miles’s 70s experiments but, rather, a set of looping repeating electronic lines that overlap to create complexity rather than being complex themselves.
With Worker, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is operating at an interesting extreme of its range — not loose and groovy like the jambands it might once have seemed akin to. This music is schematic and hard, with layers of interest that live inside the production sounds, like glints of micah in a jagged stone you’ve pulled out of the earth. It’s probably post-rock or post-jazz or post-something, a style that terminal, pulling your ears inside the music and then down the basics of rhythm and tone. “Jazz” listeners, this may not be your thing, but a world of younger fan are waiting to be won over, ears that want something both exactingly basic and surprisingly rich.
Worker has sonic soul behind its simple themes. And I bet it sounds amazing in a club with the synthesizers buzzing against walls and dance floor, Raymer hitting everything like he means it, and the guitar twang just slightly too loud. And just when we get used to this Fred, they’ll have probably tried something else. Why not?