SXSW at the Elephant Room
The Tulsa-based trio made their debut on the Downbeat critics poll last fall in the "Rising Star, Electric Band" category, a testament to their perseverance and development since they've spent the past decade wowing the progressive coffee house crowd. They are unmistakably part of the avant-garde scene that sometimes indulges to ridiculous extremes, but are hardly a garage band with a three-chord vocabulary: Two members are classically trained and their sets frequently contain songs by influential legends such as Coltrane, Miles and Sun Ra.
As is the case with many relatively obscure jam bands, they offer an exceptionally generous number of free song downloads at their web site (additional performances are available at sites such as the Live Music Archive ). The most complete set at the band's site is seven songs totaling 50 minutes from a March 19, 2004, performance at the Elephant Room in Austin, Texas. They are in unprotected MP3 format and total about 57MB in size.
Having heard their work sporadically over the years, this comes across as a good set, but not necessarily one catching them at their peak. It is a highly recommended download nonetheless, as the combination of their artistic development and experimental jam band mentality makes for plenty of intriguing concepts and improvisational passages.
Bassist Reed Mathas dominates the opening "Thelonious Monk Is My Grandmother," playing electric lines through a synthesized octave shifter that results in something at least resembling a mildly distorted guitar. His lines here and throughout are clean and free of the reckless barrage of notes some players use as a substitute for ability. To say there are influences of Jaco Pastorius or John Scofield in his playing may be accurate; to say he sounds like either is not. He delivers a bouncing set of humorous lines on "Nibbles" (a song dedicated to the neighborhood squirrel) and shows a deft touch on cello on the mournful "Sean Song," which hints at his classical abilities.
Pianist Brian Haas is the trio's dominating voice, pounding it through everything from swing to sometime-in-the-future free-form passages. His repetitive but complex chops are surprising effective throughout "Sean Song," and he switches freely from classic jazz to Medeski, Martin and Wood throughout "Walking With Giants." He also plays a melodica to deliver melodic harmonica-like lines on songs like the closing "Silent Mind."
Drummer Jason Smart is a less dominant presence than might be expected. He generally provides high energy backings, but not many solo moments. Also, not everything seems to click between the three players when it comes to their various collaboration - and this is where the performance comes across as good rather than great.
The recording quality is decent with the instruments mixed well, although the overall volume is a bit low. There's no question it's suitable for general playing, however. That statement applies to the performance as well since most listeners will find real ideas at work here and, even if they aren't crazy about such music, can rationally debate if the future of jazz looks great or ghastly.
Tracks: Thelonious Monk Is My Grandmother; Walking With Giants; Naima; Calm Before the Storm; Nibbles; Sean Song; Slow Breathe, Silent Mind
Personnel: Jason Smart, drums; Reed Mathis: electric and acoustic bass, cello; Brian Haas: piano, melodica
Visit the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey on the web at www.jfjo.com .