Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Three-Way Street

Paul Olson By

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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.


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