Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Walking With Giants

Mark Sabbatini By

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Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
Walking With Giants
Hyena Records

For some reason applying the label "breakthrough album" here feels like I'm cheating the band.

The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has a number of outstanding studio and live albums to their credit—not to mention a huge amount of free online music (see www.jfjo.com )—but this may be the one that gets them out of the "deserving wider recognition" category.

Walking With Giants finds the trio performing their first acoustic album of their usual far-ranging experimental modern jazz, equally on par to the likes of The Bad Plus and Medeski, Martin and Wood. Plenty of other chord-crunching acts lay claim to this mantle, of course; what makes this group stand out is their high proficiency from a variety of jazz and classical influences and their ability to work them so effectively into modern compositions.

Pianist Brian Harris and bassist Reed Mathis more or less trade lead voices throughout the album. Drummer Jason Smart rarely solos, but he doesn't need to—virtually every hit he supplies is a statement in itself. The soundscape is broader than one might imagine from a trio format due largely to Anderson's playing on multiple instruments, including octave-shifting his bass into guitar-like territory and using a bow to create a variety of background textures.

As for the music, everything from serious to silly and soothing to nerve-racking seems to emerge at some point.

An original like "Skeeball Over The Ocean" delivers on its title, offering an off-kilter chord-pounding romp by Harris through an intense, fun and catchy hook. It's a definite crowd pleaser ideally suited for capturing new listeners, the way The Bad Plus did with "Smells Like Teen Spirit." An similarly addictive song of an entirely different nature is the gorgeous ballad "Sean's Song," as Harris' classical influence comes through on a series of strong and melodic passages. And perhaps one of his finest recorded moments yet comes on the title track, taking a variety of past jazz influences and weaving them seamlessly into an extended uber/modern jazz solo that goes way beyond the typically mentality of most jam bands. His overall technique, mixing high-speed right hand runs with a hammering left, have that independent-yet-together quality that almost never fails to impress.

Mathis displays similar versatility, going from a flailing acid line on the free-for-all "Son Of Jah" to a harmonious Middle Eastern bow on "As It Will Be" to a near Metheny-like smoothness on the closing "Hover."

What makes the album complete is hearing all three interact on the more complex tunes. "Muppet Babies Go To The State Fair" blends Dixie and swing into the modern age with a mix of tempos. Smart builds up the drama for Mathis' high-pitched bowing on "The Arrival," a ballad that relies on melodic rather than mere experimentation for strength. Similarly, tunes like "Perfect Wife's Flannel PJs" draw nicely on traditional jazz elements without going too deep into the bag of tricks for the sake of modern sound.

This is an album with no real weaknesses, unless one is inclined to criticize the more-fun-than-artistic compositions. But here they represent an enjoyable bit of variety, knowing the players are having fun and more thoughtful stuff is on the way. It also comes with a bonus DVD featuring four live tracks from a San Francisco performance, with part of the performance also available as a free online download. Overall, an exceptional effort and one of the best albums in this genre—or any other—for 2004.

Track Listing: Daily Wheatgrass Shots; Nibbles; Skeeball Over The Ocean; The Arrival; Walking With Giants; Lola & Alice; Muppet Babies Go To The State Fair; Sean's Song; Son of Jah; Calm Before The Storm; As It Will Be; Perfect Wife's Flannel PJs; Hover.

Personnel: Brian Harris, piano; Reed Mathis, bass, ocatave pedal induced bass, acoustic 12-string guitar, cello, sitar; Jason Smart, drums.

Visit the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey on the web at www.jfjo.com .

Track Listing: Daily Wheatgrass Shots; Nibbles; Skeeball Over The Ocean; The Arrival;Walking With Giants; Lola And Alice; Muppet Babies Get Lost At The State Fair; Sean's Song; Son Of Jah; Calm Before The Storm; As It Will Be; Perfect Wife's Flannel PJ's; Hover DVD track listing: Pacific; Walking With Giants; Slow Breath Silent Mind; There Is No Method

Personnel: Brian Haas (acoustic piano), Reed Mathis (acoustic bass, ocatave pedal induced bass, cello, sitar, acoustic 12-string guitar), Jason Smart (drums, percussion)

Title: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Walking With Giants | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Hyena Records

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