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Chris Combs: Jacob Fred's Tulsa Tale

Chris Combs: Jacob Fred's Tulsa Tale
Daniel Lehner By

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JFJO retains much of what I love about jazz, and also much of what I love about big, loud, rock and roll. We remain true to the music and ourselves and I believe people can feel that and relate to it, regardless of genre preconceptions.
On a Memorial Day in 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, an encounter between a young black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland and a white elevator operator named Sarah Page—an incident that was reported with hazy details and shocking incompleteness—started one of the most brutal and tragic race riots in American history. Even more tragic, however, was how little the event was discussed by national or even Oklahoman sources. It was an event that Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's Chris Combs, like many proud Oklahomans, felt needed to be told.

"It was something that people didn't like talking about. They still don't like talking about it," said the lap steel guitarist. "The race riot was ignored for so long that has become one of the strangest and darkest parts of our city's history."

Combs's vision of describing this work in great and impassioned musical detail has already come to fruition. On May 20th 2011, JFJO premiered the Race Riot Suite to a live audience at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. The suite, which will be released on the band's Kinnara Records on August 30, 2011, seeks to bring the events into literal and impressionistic light in the best way the quartet can. The suite's conception was borne out of the guitarist's inquisition into Tulsa's past.

"At the time I was just reading a lot about the Tulsa race riot," says Combs. Some great books have been published about the riot and you can learn so much if you dig a little. Initially I had a group of small musical ideas that were inspired by different historic pieces of the race riot. Separately, JFJO had been planning on doing a larger ensemble album. Gradually the two ideas converged and I began demoing all of the material late at night in our rehearsal space, playing all the parts by recording and overdubbing."

Before the inception of Race Riot, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was embarking on a very different kind of big project: Ludwig, the band's re-imagining of Beethoven's third and sixth symphonies. The creation, described by pianist Brian Haas as "The Far East Suite meets the Flaming Lips," was typical of JFJO; the melding of many different styles is something the band excels in. However, the scope of the work and getting inside Beethoven's head was a watershed experience.

"Ludwig was something the band was talking about for a long time," explains Combs. "We had the opportunity to work with the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra and worked with a young composer named Noam Faingold. With the final product, I don't think any of us had really heard anything like that before. The challenge of performing two Beethoven Symphonies with a 50-piece orchestra and maintaining the energy of a churning and improvising jazz quartet was immense. It was particularly difficult on lap steel, but was also an exciting opportunity to reinterpret the instrument.

"It was a huge impact getting to know the inner workings of the theme and variation," Combs continues, "hearing everything that was going on. I learned so much from Brian [Hass], [bassist] Jeff Harshbarger, and [drummer] Josh [Raymer], who all have classical upbringings. Working on something of that size was definitely some of the inspiration for working on the suite, which I began working on during that process. I think you can really hear, or at least I can hear, a lot of Beethoven in it."

The task of making Beethoven relevant and contemporary may have seemed like a big undertaking, but Combs found his work to be closer to the present than we think. "The music is not that far removed from contemporary culture. The melodic and the harmonic content are so strong. If you were to throw a backbeat on it, it could sound like Radiohead. And in any case, the music is completely genius. So it doesn't take a lot of work to make it sound mind-blowing."

Combs's involvement with Jacob Fred is an example of ascended fandom. Like many Tulsa musicians, the guitarist saw Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey as a staple of the Tulsa musical diet and, through its outreach, Combs was added to create the group's contemporary quartet format.

"They were actually one of my favorite bands growing up," recalls Combs. "I went to a lot of Jacob Fred shows and nearly all the people that I've played with had as well. A few years ago, Brian [Haas] and Reid [Mathis] were spending more time in Tulsa and playing with the younger generation. I initially met them at shows and began playing with them through local gigs and jazz jams."


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