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Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Three-Way Street

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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.

AAJ: So had you played most of these cover songs out before you recorded them?

JS: Not too many times! We had a session where we kind of narrowed it down and really worked on them hard for a couple of days.

AAJ: So Joel Dorn produced this one. Reed, you produced the last album.

RM: Yeah, and I actually had a heavy hand in mixing this record. Joel showed up at the mixing session for about forty-five minutes, said three words and then split.

AAJ: So is he more of a performance type of producer?

The band collectively, almost in unison: Yeah!

RM: Yeah, his thing was all in the buildup to the record and just in directing the session. Doing audio feng shui on us.

BH: Good way to put it.

JS: Which helped it to be one of the loosest, quickest-moving sessions we've ever had.

AAJ: Yeah, you did all but one song—except "Happiness is a Warm Gun, which you recorded live in concert—in one day. That had to be a long day or night. Were they mostly first takes?

RM: No. I think for one of them we did five takes. I think all of them got at least two takes. The Mingus tune ["Fables of Faubus ] was a first take.

BH: And "Davey's Purple Powerline. That was the only take.

AAJ: I really like the sound of the record. Actually, I like the sound of your last two CDs. Nice and dry, not gussied-up, just a small room sound. Was this something you were consciously going for?

BH: Yes, absolutely. We wanted something that was just really simple and clear.

RM: Rudy Van Gelder style, you know.

JS: The rapport of three musicians playing in a room together.

AAJ: The last two albums in particular give the impression that maybe the band is more interested right now in playing acoustically. This really means that Brian plays piano, because Reed plays electric bass on the new record—but Reed, you get that woody sound on electric. But is this true? Are you more interested in the acoustic side of the band?

BH: It's cyclical. And if it's a great piano, why not use it, right? But also, I'm really trying to improve how I play the Fender Rhodes. It's a much more difficult instrument than the piano. I've been playing the Rhodes since I was twenty, and I'm thirty-one. But I started playing the piano when I was four years old, so I'm a lot more comfortable on the piano; I think my ideas are clearer on the piano. I think I play in a more relaxed way. But I'm learning how to play the Fender Rhodes in a much better way, a more laid-back way. I'm learning how to use effects more. I never really started learning about pedals until four or five years ago—I just played clean Rhodes for years. No pedals—just clean, garish, distorting Rhodes and nothing else. So I'm kind of learning how to soften my sound up. We're really influenced by electronica music, and great rock music, so an electric show is a great opportunity to explore those influences in a more obvious way. Part of what makes the new electronica amazing is the tones and textures.

RM: That's often more important than the melody.

AAJ: Sometimes it has to be, because some of those guys are better with gear than they are with—

RM: With composition, yeah.

BH: I'm trying to get better with gear. Reed is a big inspiration to me because he's so good with his gear.

RM: You know, I've sort of been the guy who assembles our records since about '97 or so. And it was Rhodes piano, and only Rhodes piano, on every record. We started making records in '94. So that's all that there was sonically to work with, and having the chance to use pianos—this is our fourth record with piano on it—is just sonically a lot more interesting to me most of the time. Like Brian says, we're getting a lot more colors out of the Rhodes these days, but for a long time it was just that one sound, song after song. To me, the piano has a lot more variety internally.

JS: Live, now that we have the option, we like to use both as often as possible. Anything to add to the textural palate—that's what we're trying to find on all our instruments.

AAJ: So, on this tour, then—does the venue determine what you do? For example, there's no piano at the place you're playing tonight, so you're playing Rhodes?

BH: Exactly. And in Finland, for the Tampere Jazz Happening, they had a Fender Rhodes and a piano there. And the piano was so beautiful, so nice, and we only had an hour-and-a-half, so I didn't even want the Fender Rhodes onstage. But at Tonic, we were doing a two-night run on this tour, and we had the Rhodes onstage both nights, because every night we were doing over two hours of music, and it was two nights, so we wanted to get some variety up there. But you're right; it's really dependent on the venue.

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.
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