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Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Three-Way Street

By Published: January 9, 2006
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.

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