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Interviews

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Three-Way Street

By Published: January 9, 2006

For an ensemble, especially an improvising ensemble, its in everybodys interest to have the music be stylistically homogenous with the desires of everybody ... its more important for the group to gel than for an individual to feel he played his thing.

There's no better gigging band than the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. The trio of pianist Brian Haas, bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Jason Smart ought to be a great live band—Haas and Mathis have been playing together for well over a decade (Smart joined the band more recently) and have, year after year, maintained a tour schedule that would crush a less hardy group.

JFJO started out in Tulsa (Mathis and Haas still reside there when not on the road) as a sprawling octet that included horns, guitar and Haas exclusively on Fender Rhodes, but by 2000 the band had reduced itself to a more flexible trio. The 2004 CD Walking With Giants marked the beginning of the group's affiliation with Hyena Records (Haas by now preferring to play acoustic piano on recordings and often in performance). 2005 saw the release of their second Hyena album, the remarkable The Sameness of Difference, an album of 13 songs (all but one recorded in one day) produced by recording heavyweight and Hyena label head Joel Dorn. Unlike the all-originals Giants, more than half of Sameness's tunes are covers of songs by a remarkably eclectic set of composers (Bjork, Brian Wilson, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Neil Young) who have in common, really, only their excellence. The cover tunes and the five JFJO originals share a no-nonsense brevity and economy—but the group interplay and near-telepathic improvisation that are band trademarks are still evident. I spoke with Haas, Mathis and Smart over dinner in Chicago shortly before JFJO played two fantastic sets at the Subterranean nightclub.

No, there is no Jacob Fred in the band. It's a long story—or at least a story the group's a little tired of explaining.

All About Jazz: I'm mostly going to ask about your great new CD, The Sameness of Difference. This is your second album on Hyena Records, and the most obvious difference between this one and the last one, Walking With Giants, is that more than half the tunes on Sameness are cover tunes—Walking With Giants is all group originals. What led to this?

Reed Mathis: We did a show at the Tonic in New York, and Joel Dorn, who's a part owner of Hyena Records, rolled down to check out his new artists. He told me after the show that he didn't quite get the band—until three or four tunes in, when we played [the Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz standard] "Alone Together, which he knew really well. And when he heard how we interpreted the form, put our thing on it, suddenly he was a huge fan for life. So then it gave him the idea that he wanted to produce us, and that he wanted to put together a record that would do that for a lot of people—give them a form they would recognize, let them hear we do with it, and then they'd understand who we are.

AAJ: So how'd you pick the tunes to cover? Did you all suggest favorite songs? Were they finalists from a huge list?

RM: It was a big list, and then we had to narrow it down, and down, to two or three songs each. We threw around ideas like maybe doing all John Lennon tunes or maybe all Prince tunes. Then it started to be more apparent that it would be nice to just have things more wide-ranging from different artists. So that's what we went with.

Brian Haas: Also, it's been something that we've been talking about for years. We've seen other bands do that with great success. We watched [Brad] Mehldau do it with Radiohead.

RM: Beatles! Mehldau plays more Beatles than Radiohead!

BH: That's actually one of the ways I got turned on to Radiohead—really, I was not a Radiohead fan until I heard Mehldau doing them and then thought I'd better check it out. And slowly I became a Radiohead fan. So this has been something we've been talking about for years. But we wanted to wait and do it right; the reason it's taken us twelve years is we didn't want to bullshit our way through it. Also, all three of us are in a better place musically to pull something like that off. I don't know if we could have pulled it off with Walking With Giants. We're more relaxed musically, so our interpretation of other peoples' stuff is a little more clear.

AAJ: The downside to including all these covers, of course, is that you don't get as many of your own compositions on the album. Reed, you've got three of your songs on Sameness and the other two of you contribute one apiece. Does this mean you all have a glut of unrecorded compositions?

RM: We have a few, but as far as tunes that were contenders for the new record, stuff composed in the last year—there weren't too many left off. As far as compositions that actually made it into performance, I can only think of two or three that could have gone on the record and didn't.

Jason Smart: Some were very new and needed the process we normally give to work them out live—to really make them into the tunes that they need to be. That's a process that takes a while.

AAJ: So when you record one of your tunes, you've already broken it in on the road?

RM: Not always. Some album versions were the second or third time we'd even played it. But a lot of our songs hit their stride two or three months in, where suddenly it blossoms and you're like, "oh, that's how it goes.

AAJ: So had you played most of these cover songs out before you recorded them?

JS: Not too many times! We had a session where we kind of narrowed it down and really worked on them hard for a couple of days.

AAJ: So Joel Dorn produced this one. Reed, you produced the last album.

RM: Yeah, and I actually had a heavy hand in mixing this record. Joel showed up at the mixing session for about forty-five minutes, said three words and then split.

AAJ: So is he more of a performance type of producer?

The band collectively, almost in unison: Yeah!

RM: Yeah, his thing was all in the buildup to the record and just in directing the session. Doing audio feng shui on us.

BH: Good way to put it.

JS: Which helped it to be one of the loosest, quickest-moving sessions we've ever had.

AAJ: Yeah, you did all but one song—except "Happiness is a Warm Gun, which you recorded live in concert—in one day. That had to be a long day or night. Were they mostly first takes?

RM: No. I think for one of them we did five takes. I think all of them got at least two takes. The Mingus tune ["Fables of Faubus ] was a first take.

BH: And "Davey's Purple Powerline. That was the only take.

AAJ: I really like the sound of the record. Actually, I like the sound of your last two CDs. Nice and dry, not gussied-up, just a small room sound. Was this something you were consciously going for?

BH: Yes, absolutely. We wanted something that was just really simple and clear.

RM: Rudy Van Gelder style, you know.

JS: The rapport of three musicians playing in a room together.

AAJ: The last two albums in particular give the impression that maybe the band is more interested right now in playing acoustically. This really means that Brian plays piano, because Reed plays electric bass on the new record—but Reed, you get that woody sound on electric. But is this true? Are you more interested in the acoustic side of the band?

BH: It's cyclical. And if it's a great piano, why not use it, right? But also, I'm really trying to improve how I play the Fender Rhodes. It's a much more difficult instrument than the piano. I've been playing the Rhodes since I was twenty, and I'm thirty-one. But I started playing the piano when I was four years old, so I'm a lot more comfortable on the piano; I think my ideas are clearer on the piano. I think I play in a more relaxed way. But I'm learning how to play the Fender Rhodes in a much better way, a more laid-back way. I'm learning how to use effects more. I never really started learning about pedals until four or five years ago—I just played clean Rhodes for years. No pedals—just clean, garish, distorting Rhodes and nothing else. So I'm kind of learning how to soften my sound up. We're really influenced by electronica music, and great rock music, so an electric show is a great opportunity to explore those influences in a more obvious way. Part of what makes the new electronica amazing is the tones and textures.

RM: That's often more important than the melody.

AAJ: Sometimes it has to be, because some of those guys are better with gear than they are with—

RM: With composition, yeah.

BH: I'm trying to get better with gear. Reed is a big inspiration to me because he's so good with his gear.

RM: You know, I've sort of been the guy who assembles our records since about '97 or so. And it was Rhodes piano, and only Rhodes piano, on every record. We started making records in '94. So that's all that there was sonically to work with, and having the chance to use pianos—this is our fourth record with piano on it—is just sonically a lot more interesting to me most of the time. Like Brian says, we're getting a lot more colors out of the Rhodes these days, but for a long time it was just that one sound, song after song. To me, the piano has a lot more variety internally.

JS: Live, now that we have the option, we like to use both as often as possible. Anything to add to the textural palate—that's what we're trying to find on all our instruments.

AAJ: So, on this tour, then—does the venue determine what you do? For example, there's no piano at the place you're playing tonight, so you're playing Rhodes?

BH: Exactly. And in Finland, for the Tampere Jazz Happening, they had a Fender Rhodes and a piano there. And the piano was so beautiful, so nice, and we only had an hour-and-a-half, so I didn't even want the Fender Rhodes onstage. But at Tonic, we were doing a two-night run on this tour, and we had the Rhodes onstage both nights, because every night we were doing over two hours of music, and it was two nights, so we wanted to get some variety up there. But you're right; it's really dependent on the venue.

AAJ: I want to talk about the first track on the CD, which is your cover version of Jimi Hendrix's "Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland). First, I was attracted to this record because you managed to choose a surprising number of my favorite songs to cover. I especially like this Hendrix one, because I think it's kind of underrated as his stuff goes.

RM: Oh, definitely.

AAJ: It's one of his best melodies. What's interesting is that these covers aren't vehicles for improvisation. They're tight rearrangements that manage to incorporate all the melodic materials of the originals.

JS: That hits it right on the head.

AAJ: It's really kind of a radical concept, because I don't think anyone else is doing this right now. It's not that you're not an improv band, but it's a whole different sensibility. So how did these arrangements work out? How did this concept come to fruition?

JS: It's just a result of tons of improvisation and making things up. It put us in a place where we just said, "let's try to do some shorter statements that say a whole lot, like a lot of our heroes do. Let's try to think texturally more than about solo-based music. Just some new concepts for us to really delve into, and I think this is just the beginning of this period.

RM: On the Hendrix tune, when I was trying to visualize us doing it, I was thinking that I'd do the melody. It's kind of close to the kind of stuff that comes out of me anyway when I use that tone. So I was trying to figure out how we would do it, and I was listening to it—and Hendrix's rhythm guitar part was this cascading, arpeggiated thing. So I spent some time and actually transcribed it, as close as I could, and then figured out I'd written it a half-step off [laughing]. But when we got it transposed to the right key, Brian just worked out that Hendrix rhythm guitar part.

AAJ: All the arpeggios.

RM: Yeah, even all the little flourishes that Hendrix improvised. Brian got them verbatim on the piano.

BH: Thanks to Reed.

RM: That was the first tune that he and I tried to do for the record when we got together, just the two of us, to try to play stuff. And when we pulled it off and got all the way through, we were like, "what? This sounds like Chopin!

AAJ: I love that melodic payoff in the tune, when you get to the [singing] "'lectric wo-man waits for you and me.

RM: Yeah, you build up and then suddenly it's got that space.

BH: But in my opinion—I don't think the whole record is really arranged at all. It's just that in Jacob Fredland, all the other records have been completely all over the place with no arrangements, just pulled off on the spot. I've noticed that a lot of writers have focused on that: "it's not your normal Jacob Fred. But for us, it really is. "Slow Breath has improvisation; there's lots of improvisation on the record. The Mingus tune has a lengthy improvisation section, and the whole Brubeck tune ["In Your Own Sweet Way ] is improvised.

RM: "The Maestro has a incredible group improvisation in it.

BH: It's just that we're improvising in a different way. We want to improvise in a more succinct way, so that even when we're totally improvising, it sounds very arranged. Really, we sort of used years of overplaying, and over-improvising, and overextending, as a way to eventually get to this point. Now we can improvise succinctly and make a clear, melodic statement. Now that, to really old-school Jacob Fred fans, is going to sound like we went out of our way to do this. And I've seen a lot of writers attribute it to Joel Dorn, or to us wanting to be more accessible. But it's not something as conscious as that.

RM: It's really just the result of twelve years of hearing zillions of notes per second! Just playing your instrument so much, ad nauseam, that your psyche has no choice but to desire a new territory, a new sound, a new approach. We, as a group, just got to the point where we wanted to be stimulated. The same thing over and over ceases to be stimulating, and so we found a type of improvising and a group of tunes that we find incredibly stimulating. A precedent in the jazz world for how we've been improvising would be Thelonious—basically, all of his solos were the melodies of his songs, abstracted. And Miles in the fifties, when he went through his Ahmad Jamal phase, was doing the same thing; his solos were abstractions of the melody of the song. That's a great way to have the listener follow your improvisation.

BH: My grandparents, when they were alive, came to several Jacob Fred shows. And they always hated it. They'd always say, "how come you stopped playing the melody? It doesn't make sense. What you're doing isn't jazz. And my grandparents were huge jazz fans. My grandmother was a jazz pianist and organist. So they'd say, "how come you don't keep playing the melody? And at that time, seven, eight years ago, I'd say, "cause it's jazz! You're supposed to improvise; you're supposed to do a theme and variations. And I still believe that, and some people's variations are going to be all over the place, and some are going to be closer to the melody. But they were always really honest with me; they didn't like the music. It took getting older and a lot of wood-shedding and being in a band with these guys for me to sort of be right there where Russell and Paula Haas were, and I know what they're talking about! Now, when I hear Mehldau, I want to hear him sticking with that melody; I want to hear how what he plays relates back to the melody, and with him, I always can. I wish my grandparents could have heard this record.

RM: When jazz musicians stopped playing the melody of the song, it seems like it was the moment that Charlie Parker started making records. And he sort of introduced the solo-as-having-nothing-to-do-with-the-song's-melody concept. And he really got away with it. But until him, most jazz soloing was the song's melody—and directly correlative is the fact that before Bird, jazz accounted for ninety-percent of record sales! As soon as they threw the melody out the window, it was, "hey, Elvis Presley! Bob Dylan!

BH: Also, we chose tunes that play themselves. All we have to do is play some of those tunes; they don't need any improvisation. That Flaming Lips tune ["The Spark That Bled ] is like some new kind of Beethoven. It's the same with the Mingus tune—all you have to do is just start the tune, and before you know it, it's over. We chose all compositions to cover that were bad-ass tunes. No gimmick tunes, no frivolous tunes; they're all world-class compositions.

AAJ: And they're also not just sets of changes to blow over.

RM: Right. They're deliberately avoiding that. The only one that is is the Brubeck one ["In Your Own Sweet Way ] and we deliberately didn't do that on that one. We gave the Brubeck one the Aphex Twin Ambient Works treatment—that's what we were going for.

AAJ: The Hendrix song and a bunch of others feature you, Reed, playing the song's melody on your bass using an octave pedal effect—a group trademark. Definitely a big part of what you do. You do the same on Bjork's "Isobel, for example, and that one's particularly effective due to Brian comping over—or accompanying, I don't love the word "comp here—your melody.

BH: I would say what Reed and I do is based on the way Louis Armstrong and his band would play; like I'm Earl Hines and Reed's Louis when he's playing up high. It's like Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. Except we think of the band as the three of us doing that—all of us interacting in that Louis Armstrong, Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry fashion where it's always call-and-response, even if it's super-minimal. You're right, I'm never really comping, I'm never just laying down chords. It's always interactive.

RM: Brian's gotten really good at understanding the role of bass. My friend Skerik, the saxophonist, is always telling me, "bass is a role; it's not an instrument. That's something that's not easy for a lot of keyboardists to grasp, outside of the B-3 kingdom.

AAJ: Yes, and those guys have their pedals.

RM: Yeah, they're brought up on that. But when we started doing it and I was playing in the high voice and Brian was playing the bass lines, I would get frustrated—because it would be more interactive. His left hand would be doing something that his right hand would normally do. And I'd be like, "no, it needs to be a bass line! Think of Bob Marley. And now we've got that stuff down; it's great.

AAJ: This can be a difficult point in group interaction. Musicians don't love being told what to play by someone else.

BH: That's something the three of us have perfected, actually. Jason Smart has been with the band for a little over four years. And that's one of the best things we do is grow and evolve and talk to each other about what the other guy is playing. We stopped getting offended about that years ago, but it's something we had to talk about. We've learned how to interact with each other in an ego-less way when it comes to what the other guy is playing. My two main influences—if I'm asked about that, I always say these two guys. There are no two other people on the planet who have given more of a shit about what I'm playing than these guys.

RM: For an ensemble, especially an improvising ensemble, it's in everybody's interest to have the music be stylistically homogenous with the desires of everybody. The more what you're playing is jibing with what the other guy wants to hear, the better the band's going to sound and the more it's going to be worth your while to be on the road for thousands of days a year. That's what we've learned: it's more important for the group to gel than for an individual to feel he played his thing. That's what you do in your living room. The whole has to come together. That's a sacrificing road, but that's what leads to good stuff, and eventually it led to this record—which we could not have made before the day we made it.

AAJ: Well, it's good you feel that way, because not only does it make for better music, but you tour like a rock band—lots of touring, lots of dates. If you didn't have that desire to work together, you'd probably be an ex-band.

RM: Definitely. And a lot of the seismic shifts in our group paradigm have come at moments when we almost were an ex-band—where it just gets to the point where one or all of us aren't getting the sustenance spiritually that we require to make this impossible lifestyle worth it. So we're honest with each other, try to bring up what might be the issue, and solve it. That's why we're still together after twelve years.

BH: Reed and I started the band twelve years ago and that's longer than I've been with any woman. Reed and I have learned, because we have a mutual love of the music that the other guy makes. Maybe sometimes in the past we haven't been able to jibe very much personally—which now is effortless. But what got us through stuff in the past was a mutual respect for the other guy's music. It's never been a financial decision; it's never been a business decision. I think that comes out on the stage. Because we've always been able to figure out how to work things musically, it's enabled us to continue to have a strong relationship as friends we maybe didn't have in the past. It's something I'm grateful for every single day. I've not always been the easiest cat to get along with.

JS: It's a total three-way street of teaching each other. Even if you're more of a timid person, like I think I used to be before I got into this band [group laughter]. You learn that you're either going to have this death-pit-of-the-stomach thing that you're holding back, or you express yourself. And for me, it's helped me to express myself.

AAJ: Was this a tough organization for you to enter?

JS: At the time I started, yes. But it's a factor of a million things as to why.

RM: He jumped in at a crazy moment. We were doing 250 shows a year when he started. We'd been on the road for seventeen months straight when he did his first show.

JS: There was this crazy level of go-getterness—almost too much. It needed to chill out and leave space, which we've eventually gotten to. It makes the music better. Our lives are better. You can't be onstage improvising with people that you want to strangle, that you're mad at! And if you never get away from each other, you can't make good, loving, wholesome music like you're trying to make together by harboring stuff like, "you did this thing in the van and I'm pissed at you!

AAJ: Yeah, that's for the Ramones, and it was hard enough for them.

JS: And that's playing super loud—"I can play louder than you. It works for rock, but it doesn't work for improvising.

AAJ: Let's talk about some of the originals on the record, starting with Jason's song "Slow Breath Silent Mind. There's often a cinematic quality to this band's music; there's a feeling of a story being told with a beginning, middle and end. I know there's a huge improvisational element to this song, but what I hear is distinct parts, sections—which you all have in a lot of your songs. It's sort of a suite that builds; tension rises and ebbs. There's some fantastic, searching drumming, but it's not a vehicle to show off drum chops. To me it's a short little epic that tells a story of struggle and maybe eventual acceptance.

RM: It worked!

JS: Well, as a drummer I don't have, maybe, a whole lot of harmonic knowledge, so I go for a textural kind of painting. And that title comes from just the madness of traveling around and doing this and completely being out of your element every day of your life. I'm a homebody kind of guy who likes to breathe deep, and eat what I want, and exercise, and it's really hard to do all that stuff when you're on the road. And so "Slow Breath, Silent Mind is just a reminder to me and hopefully the audience—we don't have lyrics, but it's there in the title—to take a slow breath, make focused decisions in the moment. Your life is probably going to be better off for doing that.

RM: That's one where Brian's improvising on the piano is all based on Jason's written melody. It really works that way; Jason's tunes tend to be like that, where there's a bass line tonality and a melody tonality. The way to improvise is to retain the tonality but mix up the phrasing and the rhythm. I was given three notes for the bass line, but it's all in the phrase that you make rhythmically, but with only those three notes: that's the tonality, that's the mood. And then there's this little melody. Most of his tunes have that feature.

JS: The sparse feel is just to counter some of the dense music we were making at that time. Now, on a regular basis, we get to those dense moments—which I'm not against, but there have to be some relaxed moments to make the dense moments mean something. If it's constant fff density madness—that's why nobody wants to hear free jazz.

BH: Well, now, the dense moments are part of the story. There's nothing forced. We're getting on stage and we're relaxed, which for me is a very new thing.

AAJ: Let's discuss "The Maestro.

RM: I wrote that song for Johnny Vidacovich. He's a drummer in New Orleans. He's one of the elder statesmen of the New Orleans scene, and doesn't leave much, although he does gig in New York and Europe and has toured extensively, played with a lot of folks. He played with Professor Longhair throughout the seventies, and Dr. John—every major New Orleans cat. I heard about him for years and years before I met the guy, and we hit it off. He's done gigs with us as a quartet, with two drummers. I've done trio gigs with his trio. And he's become a friend, but it's weird to be friends with someone that masterful; he's really incredible.

He does this thing where he drums and he does poetry—he's got these poems that are, well, not really rap, more like if you wrote lyrics to a Monk head. He does these funky second-line things and it all works together, whimsical words—just a beautiful cat. So I wrote a melody that I thought had the rhythmic cadence of one of his poems. He plays with a very relaxed style that's constantly improvised; he's never vamping. But it's always supported by the other stuff and it grooves like you wouldn't believe. Improvising with him is thrilling. So the game plan for that tune was: (a) feature Jason and (b) improvise like Johnny, have an open section where usually Brian would just blow—but not do that. Do what Johnny would do, a floating, sparse thing that's really funky.

BH: Like Johnny says, think about the weight of his arms and that's it.

RM: Yeah, don't think about what you're playing. Just think about space and weight.

AAJ: Okay, Brian, "Davey's Purple Powerline is your tune on this record. I can't sum this one up. I can say that it's built around two melodic phrases. There's a descending figure, and that sort of waltz-time thing. But this is an elusive song, sort of a schizophrenic obstacle course.

RM: [Laughing] A trip through Brian's mind.

BH: Welcome to our world.

AAJ: What can you tell me about this one?

BH: I really love pianists and jazz that are super-obviously call-and-response. And all of those melodies are just call-and-response. Sometimes it's call-and-response with the melody itself; sometimes it's call-and-response with the stride piano line. The concept of the tune is based around some guys I know in Oklahoma who grow some herbal remedies. These guys are pretty freaky dudes. They get out on the land, don't come off the land for a while, they start imagining stuff—and that's part of the song title, this guy who actually just had a freak-out: Davey. I love Thelonious Monk so much, but at the same time, the main thing I respect about him is he didn't sound like anybody else. So that melody is almost a kind of Monkish lilt, but I wanted the improvised section to be the opposite of what Monk does. I'm loosely still playing the melody, but "Jah Smart—Jason—is doing a lot the arranging just impromptu, with all of the stops and starts and the time changes.

RM: We just let him conduct us.

AAJ: He's driving.

BH: Yes!

RM: He'll switch tempo and feel and density and we just try to hang with what he does.

BH: We just try to watch him and respond to his arrangement. So that's a tune where I wanted to do the opposite of what we're doing on the rest of the record, and just let him conduct, to show how we converse with each other. Because it's super-unique; no one has a language like ours and very few people respond as quickly as we do to what the guy is doing. So none of that is arranged. I just started playing the melody and the stride piano and these guys fell in. And there's that waltz section and that's it. All the time changes are improvised, the melodies, everything. But a lot of it sounds like an arrangement.

JS: But having those beginning bits, like you said—those two sections. You still have two little bits to jump off of, come back to, kind of signal that you're trying to go to one place or another. A lot of our tunes are that format.

BH: But all the middle section is totally improvised and those time changes that sound like we're all watching for them—that's just us getting lucky.

RM: There'll be a pause, and bam! When Jason comes down, I don't know where the quarter note's going to be at, I don't know what key we're going to be in—but you just have to let go of your mind, and nine times out of ten I hit the root of whatever chord Brian does and I play a bass line exactly in sync with Jason.

JS: 250 dates playing through the south—you tend to go inward with the group.

AAJ: "The Spark That Bled. Fantastic cover version. The original by the Flaming Lips is one of my favorite songs of the last ten years. What interests me, again, is your arrangement and how it seems to include all the musical information of the original. But it's also incredibly appropriate that you would choose to cover this song, because in some ways it's similar to what you do in your own songwriting: melodic, storytelling, multipart music. In that sense, it's similar to the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun, which you also cover—that's one of the most famous multipart tunes ever. Do you see the similarity?

RM: That's why we chose "Happiness is a Warm Gun —because it seemed like a form that we would be right at home in. And the Flaming Lips as well. Like Brian said, the Flaming Lips and the Hendrix tune are the two covers that, to me, sound the most like classical compositions. And Brian and I played classical music for the first half of our lives and that's definitely a large home world for us. Brian compared "The Spark That Bled to Beethoven and to me, the Hendrix tune sounds like the Romantic era—Liszt, Chopin. And the Lips tune—we didn't even arrange it. We pretty much run it down exactly as it is on the record but with our voice. But having that grand piano and those big chords; it's just an excuse to show the world what good songwriters those guys are. We don't have to dress it up or do a darned thing. All we do it is render it on different instruments and you're like, "god, what an incredible composition!

AAJ: The album covers a lot of territory. In terms of jazz, the "jazziest moment on the record is Reed's "Halliburton Breakdown. It's pretty much bop. I like Reed's electric bass breaks on that one. The least jazzy moment would have to be the cover of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down. I think Neil's essentially unjazzable; you can't jazzify his chords and you can't play jazz drums to his tunes—the best you can do is just play crisp rock drums. But really, do you even care about genre? And do you consider yourselves a jazz band?

RM: No, we care nothing about genre, and yes, we consider ourselves a jazz band. To me, all my jazz heroes—well, not all, but the top ten: they didn't care about genre either. Ellington did not care about genre. Louis didn't care when everybody was calling him a sellout for singing pop songs in the early thirties. 'Trane didn't care when he played "My Favorite Things and everyone said he sold out then. I think genre is a silly roadblock. But I think we're firmly in the jazz tradition. I'm biased, but that's what I think.

JS: If you're going to be closed to all change in jazz, all the harmonic and rhythmic changes—if it stays the same too long, it's going to be dead music like classical.

AAJ: Repertory music.

BH: That's why we play some repertory music, like the Mingus one. The Mingus is a very jazzy moment. He's such an underrated composer. Good grief; all you have to do is learn the tune and then Mingus comes down and plays it for you! He's discounted all the time! Years ago, I remember a couple mags did articles on jazz composition throughout the ages and sometimes he wasn't even mentioned.

AAJ: Well, it's Mingus and Ellington, isn't it? The two big guys for composition.

RM: Those are the guys. For large ensemble especially. As for "Halliburton Breakdown —I definitely wrote that after being newly slayed afresh by some of the Bird and Dizzy recordings. The really early ones, where their unison stuff is like a bolt of lightning; it's ridiculous. So the head definitely came from that, and the goal for the improvising came from Miles' biography. There are eighty pages where all he talks about is Bird, and at one point he says, "the best I ever heard that guy is before he was recorded, in '43, '44. He said he would have people jumping up and down on tables screaming "hallelujah, but he never played longer than sixteen bars! He was in the Earl Hines band. His solos were sixteen bars maximum, and the house would be completely demolished at the end of those sixteen bars. So my idea was, okay, let's try to do that, keep all the solos short, keep the table going around and try to make a very succinct statement. Now, live, it has opened up and we do play a little longer. But on the record it was sort of trading sixteens, trading thirty-twos, something like that.

AAJ: There's not really a long tune on this record. There's no "Walking With Giants. "Santiago is really short—two-and-a-half minutes.

RM: "Santiago actually got abridged for the record, which I'm a little bummed about. When we were rehearsing that tune, we played Joel all of our contenders the day before going into the studio, and discussed them. On that one, he really liked the A section but didn't like the bridge as much. That bridge is half the song, because in the initial statement, you state the A theme, state the B theme, restate the A theme and then you begin improvising. You improvise on the A theme until it develops—then, tempo change, improvise on the B theme for almost as long, if not longer. Then recapitulate to the A theme. So if you take that A theme out, there's not much left! I like the stuff on the record but that tune has a lot more of a cinematic, epic quality in its original state. And that's how we play it live.

AAJ: You stuck that section back in?

RM: Yeah. And when we were recording it, I was the composer; I could have put my foot down. But I was thinking, "why the heck did we get a producer anyway, if we're not going to trust his objective judgment? So I took a chance and went for what he suggested.

JS: Including the song order. He came up with an order that would have been completely out of our tendencies. We probably would have started with something like "Halliburton or something like that. He came up with a pretty interesting lineup that eases you into it, which is kind of from a more mature, made-about-a-million-records point of view.

BH: Joel did that? I thought [executive producer Kevin] Calabro did the whole order.

RM: They did it together. They sat down in the office and figured it out.

AAJ: I really love the tune "Wonderful on this record—your version of the Brian Wilson song. That's yet another of my all-time favorite songs that you managed to choose to cover.

RM: You actually knew that?

AAJ: Yeah, I'm a pretty big Beach Boys fan. I know a lot of your arrangements on this record have an improvisational element. But what's interesting about "Wonderful is that if it has anything to do with improvisation, it's the world's most subtle form of improv where it's just a question of phrasing—of stating the written melody just a little differently. This is what's happening on "Wonderful, I think; it's slightly rephrased, like a great singer would do on a song.

RM: The idea on that one was to have the improvising be dynamic—where we'd improvise crescendos and decrescendos as a group rather than improvise over the chords or whatever. Just keep that beautiful melody going. If you tried to blow over those chords it would sound kind of jazzy-jazz anyway. So the idea was to have the improvisation be textural; mostly Jason. Then Brian and I would just follow him.

AAJ: So you're going to work this record for a while, keep touring on it—you don't even have to think about recording a new one for some time. But do you think the next one will be like this one? Is this where you're going? Or do you see doing a much more improvisational thing?

RM: It's going to be a little while, but if we could, I'd release an all-electric, all-improvised record immediately. We've got more than sixty minutes worth of stuff that we're really proud of with the Rhodes that's all improv. We've really been exploring that a lot lately, and I think that would be just as heavy as The Sameness of Difference in the exact opposite way.

AAJ: Live in the studio? Or from a show?

RM: I'd want to release stuff where every song's from a different night—and make a suite out of it. But like you said, we're going to work this record for at least six months.

BH: All of '06.

RM: Just from being in this band for twelve years, I can guarantee that whatever my concept right now is about our next record—it's a mirage. My concept of The Sameness of Difference the morning we went into the studio was a mirage. It is what is is and it'll be what it'll be when the time comes around. But I think our next record will have a lot more electric sonics and a lot more spontaneous composition.

BH: Something else we talked about for the next record—we've been really lucky who our friends are. All three of us are friends with some unbelievable players, and we've definitely thought about doing a Jacob Fred Big Band record. Jason, Reed and I all compose a lot, and in very different ways. So we've talked about writing a suite for a big band all together, since we all have different strengths as composers. So that's something we've talked about. Financially, Jacob Fred Big Band probably couldn't gig, but we could do a record.

AAJ: Recently a friend asked me sincerely, out of the blue, "why would somebody play jazz? It's not like it's that popular. I came up with the usual, "well, this is where musicians can improvise kind of explanation. But what do you say? What's your answer?

JS: It has to start from a compulsive need to express something that you don't hear out there. We've talked a million times about being from the Midwest—there's some good stuff that rolls through both of our towns, but I always wanted Miles and Tony Williams to roll through my town! And that wasn't coming anywhere near me. So I tried to find guys that I could learn how to do that with. It just hits you like a lightning bolt, and it's not a rational thing. We all like popular music styles as well, but this is just something you're compelled to do.

RM: I once heard a very sweet and innocent—and ignorant, though I don't mean that in a bad way—girl, who we were staying with, ask our first drummer, Sean Layton, why anybody would want to play jazz. And he was very patient and fatherly when he answered her. He was like, "well, there are things that can't be told in words. A lot of our human experience can't be described. It can only be demonstrated, and instrumental improvised music is an involuntary map of your inner world. There's really no other way to show that stuff. You can't say it, you can't compose it. By its very nature, it has to be spontaneous to go to that place in the self. I think that's what makes it eternally relevant. But it has to have a new form. It has to take a new form everyday, just like the earth takes a new form.

BH: My answer would be one word, and that word would be "love.

Visit Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey on the web.


Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey Selected Discography

The Sameness of Difference (Hyena, 2005)
Walking With Giants (Hyena, 2004)
Symbiosis Osmosis (Kufala, 2003)
Slow Breath, Silent Mind (Kufala, 2003)
Telluride is Acoustic (Self-publised, 2002)
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, All Is One (Live in New York) (Knitting Factory, 2002)
Self is Gone (Self-published, 2001)
Live at Your Mama's House (Self-published, 2000)
Welcome Home (Accurate, 1998)
Live in Tokyo (Self-published, 1996)
Live at the Lincoln Continental (Self-published, 1995)

Related Articles
Farther Afield: Live at Higher Ground (2005)
Live and Electric in Saratoga (2005)

Photo Credit
Kevin Haas



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Happiness Is A Warm Gun

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey

From The Sameness of Difference

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