Chris Combs: Jacob Fred's Tulsa Tale

Daniel Lehner By

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Combs, as a Tulsa native, had a lot to draw from and therefore had a lot to offer the band. "I grew up playing guitar. My mother's side of the family is from New Orleans and my father's side of the family hails from the hills of Missouri, so I grew up with a steady stream of old jazz and rural folk music, balanced out by all of the Led Zeppelin, Yes, and The Beatles my parents were listening to. Tulsa is a city of great guitar players and the scene here has influenced me heavily."

The lap pedal steel guitar, to put it lightly, is an uncommon instrument in the jazz world. Its signature slides and wails have given Jacob Fred's music as significant sonic coloring and have defined the last few records for JFJO. For Combs, it was as much a learning experience for him as it was a sonic affirmation for the rest of the band. "I was playing the first couple tours on electric guitar; at the time I joined in 2008, the band was touring for the record Lil Tae Rides Again. They actually knew at one point they wanted to include lap pedal steel because Reed had been playing it. He had been using it to recreate the electronic sonic tapestries of that album so the band expanded into a quartet to recreate that sound landscape. Reed showed me the first few things I learned on the instrument and slowly over the next few years on the road the lap steel took over and has become my primary instrument.

"I didn't really have any formal training. I've developed a style mostly autonomous from traditional steel playing. Steve Pryor, Tulsa-based guitar Godfather and longtime idol of JFJO, has been a huge influence on my steel playing. Learning it has allowed me to redefine myself as a musician."

After two records as a quartet, Race Riot Suite has allowed the band to momentarily reclaim its status as a large small group, the first time since the original octet format. Combs enlisted the help of a diverse and formidable cast of horn players—a mix of old friends and nationally established players. "The horn section is comprised of some of our biggest heroes and influences," Combs enthuses. "Steven Bernstein on trumpet and slide trumpet, Peter Apfelbaum on bari and tenor sax, Jeff Coffin on tenor, Mark Southerland, who's kind of the godfather of the Kansas city avant-garde, on tenor and homemade horns and Matt Leland, one of the found members of JFJO, on trombone. It was five really strong personalities. It was so inspiring to be in the same room with all of these people, let alone get to play with them; they are some of the best horn players and best people on the planet."

Enlisting the help of such a diverse cast seems only natural given the artistic and prosaic size of the album. Sonically, Combs drew from a huge tapestry of influences, everything from jazz's classic composers (Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington) and manic downtown ensembles (Skerik and Steven Bernstein's MTO) to artisan hip-hop (J-Dilla and Mad-Lib) and boldly adventurous melody-meets-noise rock technicians (Lightning Bolt and Sonic Youth).

The actual musical styles in the suite ring very clearly of older jazz and pre-jazz styles like ragtime and second-line style stomps. "Some of the music is a very deliberate time travel to the music of the time," explains Combs. "In the '20s, there was a lot jazz from the territory bands of the time."

The album traces the race riot in a linear fashion as well as an impressionistic one. Dotted with four short musical "prayers" throughout, each track represents a different moment and portrait of life in Tulsa before, during and after the riot. Though each track stands as an example of Combs's creativity in and of itself, there is an intricate and through-composed story arc woven throughout the album.

"'Black Wall Street' is the boomtown era Greenwood," said Combs, describing where the story begins, "which, at the time, was the most affluent black neighborhood and business district in the United States. 'The Burning' refers to both the riot itself and a great book on the riot by author Tim Madigan. 'Mt Zion' is the Baptist church that remained an icon in the Greenwood neighborhood."

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