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Farther Afield: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey Live at Higher Ground

Doug Collette By

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In a recent appearance at South Burlington Vermont's Higher Ground, The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey sounded like a wholly different band than the one that appeared in the Burlington area the last time the performed at Nectar's in the fall of 2004. As captured on the trio's brilliant new album The Sameness of Difference, JFJO is now eminently focused, its music streamlined and purposeful, all the more memorable for that combination of virtues.

That's what made it part mystifying and part frustrating to see how the crowd, apparently excited to see the band at the outset of the evening, dwindled considerably during the last half-hour of the single set performance, That begs the question of whether the band should include more covers, such as Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down, later in the set.

But that may be a moot point since JFJO mapped out close to two hours onstage so wisely, navigating originals like "Halliburton Breakdown with all the flourish they applied to outside material like "Happiness Is A Warm Gun. This performance of a Beatles tune stood like a microcosm of the threesome's approach since, with its distinct sections in markedly different rhythms and seeming disconnected melodies, it became a suite of sorts.

Jacob Fred covered a lot of territory in their time on the Showcase Lounge stage and, to their credit, never got bogged down anywhere they went (unlike openers Oshe, who are so single-mindedly immersed in Seventies fusion). The threesome deftly facilitated transitions from the pulsing rhythms of sound similar to Miles Davis' electric period with more melodic approach of pop, the likes of which distinguish their new recording.

It's a tribute to bassist Reed Mathis' mastery of his bass that, in addition to playing the instrument in a conventional method, the effects he extracts from it add so much atmosphere to the group's sound: close you eyes and you will easily imagine more than just three men on stage when listening to The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.

And you may want to close your eyes when Mathis indulges in the body English and facial contortions he does. In contrast to drummer Jason Smart, who is as effective a percussionist as he is unobtrusive stage presence, Mathis' self-conscious mannerisms only detract from his musicianship. He could take a hint from Smart and of keyboardist Brian Haas, who approaches his instruments, including something that sounds like a melodica but is only a remarkable simulation, with the professorial air of an intellectual.

Such is the collective persona of JFJO, whose cryptic album titles, combined with their conceptual ambitions, appear more abstract than they come across on stage. Especially right now, with all three bringing diverse outside experience to their common project, and the sum of that practice reaping such artistic dividends to the band, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey deserves to be heard by larger audiences, in both live and recorded contexts.

Photo Credit Kevin Haas

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