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Extended Analysis

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Walking With Giants

By Published: August 24, 2004
Walking With Giants
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
Hyena Records

They are content to be where they are, talking or not talking.

Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know.

Poet Robert Bly talks of a "third body" shared in common, an "other" that love and commitment bring into being. It's hard to imagine a more apt metaphor for the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. Three people, feeding something beyond them, beyond the usual look-at-me spotlight grabbing, growing a giant from the simple soil of piano, bass and drums.

Walking With Giants is JFJO's first acoustic oriented studio release. That it's taken so long to emerge in their 10-year journey may surprise some but the wait was more than worth it. From the crackling fills from drummer Jason Smart on the opening "Daily Wheatgrass Shots" through the insanely human moan of Reed Mathis' octave-pedal-induced bass on through the dense, jittery ivory manipulations of Brian Haas, it's abundantly clear this record is their coming out party to the jazz world at large. Already touring dynamos that've made inroads into the emerging jam-music scene, Jacob Fred now seems poised to bring their beautifully articulated, incredibly organic approach to music to a much larger audience. Not only is Giants their finest recorded moment to date, it's also a succinct encapsulation of everything good & right about the band.

Jazz is full of cats with mad chops, so the question becomes, what have you got besides technical ecstasy? JFJO offer three increasingly inspired composers as well as instrumentalists of grace, empathy and scary imagination. The title cut is the sound Nature might make if the trees and winds played instruments, moving in the way many '60s Coltrane pieces can be. "As It Will Be," with its smoky sitar and languid desert percussion, is a night ride over open sand, a pilgrimage to an unnamed holy place with a stirring cello solo sitting like some oasis along the road. "Hover" is the out-of-body experience of the drunkard or the mystic. "Lola And Alice" could be a French silent film, full of smiling glances and good cheap red wine served on a softly buzzing cobblestone street. Their work conjures up so many images, a product of their druidic chemistry that takes the natural world and mixes it with tears and human hands and soul. It is, in a word, stirring.

The nearest lines of comparison in modern jazz are surely Medeski, Martin and Wood and recently anointed trio The Bad Plus. JFJO has it all over both of those acts simply because they write music that sticks out, that could one day become part of jazz's canon, performed and expanded by a hundred musicians inspired by their vision. Instead of the standard issue statement of theme, a series of solos and then the restatement of the main theme, Jacob Fred truly embodies the "Odyssey" in their name. Their music goes places. It's transformative, transcendent, tintinabulous. Another verse from Bly captures this dynamic nicely:

When the smoke touches the roof of the cave,

The green leaves burst into flame,

The air of night changes to dark water,

The mountains alter and become the sea.

It doesn't hurt that Brian Haas plays with the grandeur of a young Abdullah Ibrahim mingled with the complex knack for unusual settings of Andrew Hill. Or that Jason Smart embodies the sharply physical swing of Art Blakey or Buddy Rich tempered by some gentler hand. Or that Reed Mathis is quite possibly the future sound of jazz bass unfolding right before our ears. Taken together, especially with so much of the electricity removed, it is intoxicating.

And maybe just a tad frightening coming from three such youthful guys. The bonus DVD that accompanies Walking With Giants presents them at Yoshi's in Oakland, CA during their two-night stand in March of this year. Seeing them in action is to experience their own joy in playing together, the way they soar higher and higher carried along by a collective updraft. That they could be so young and yet so deep is hard to fathom but a blast to behold. The four performances included expand on the studio album in enlightening ways. Haas employs the melodica, completely absent from Giants , to bring in harmonica & accordion sounds, as well as a pleasant reggae dub haze around the edges. Their yen for new sounds gives them a huge palette that's only truly revealing itself these days. The version of the title tune shows just how flexible their compositions can be. Using just their shoulders and expressive faces, Reed & Smart dance together, smiling, cajoling, skipping lightly. Best of all, the DVD includes a gorgeous take on "Slow Breath Silent Mind," which further evidences Jason Smart's emergence as a composer to be reckoned with. This is a haunted caravan, sleep hungry but resolved to keep moving towards sunrise. As they approach the dawn, they break into a trot full of mixed emotions and powerful release.

I can't imagine anyone who loves jazz not loving this release. There is such life filling big lungs here. Many of the tracks are staples of their live shows and yet these feel like defining renditions, burned into old wood for the generations to come. The title comes from a stroll the band took amongst redwood trees but it might just as well refer to the pantheon of jazz greats that have come before them. Jacob Fred possesses the skill and the passion to grow into one of the most incredible trios jazz has ever known. In them one hears the murmurings of the Village Vanguard-era Bill Evans Trio, something indefinably marvelous coming into being, a fourth person, if you will, that has just stood up, tall & true, and finally asked the world to take notice. Listen with even half the care and heart they put into this music and I'm certain your rewards will be multitude.

Track listing: Daily Wheatgrass Shots; Nibbles; Skeeball Over The Ocean; The Arrival;Walking With Giants; Lola And Alice; Muppet Babies Get Lost At The State Fair; Sean's Song; Son Of Jah; Calm Before The Storm; As It Will Be; Perfect Wife's Flannel PJ's; Hover DVD track listing: Pacific; Walking With Giants; Slow Breath Silent Mind; There Is No Method

Personnel: Brian Haas (acoustic piano), Reed Mathis (acoustic bass, ocatave pedal induced bass, cello, sitar, acoustic 12-string guitar), Jason Smart (drums, percussion)

Visit the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey on the web at .

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