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Published: 2005/03/06
by Holly Isbister

Miles, Monk and Mythopoetics With Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey

Jason Smart (drums), Reed Mathis (bass) and Brian Haas (keyboards) of the jazz trio,“Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey”:http://www.jfjo.com, are soundchecking at the Hot House and they are well over their allotted time. The opening band waits impatiently as Haas tries out a new in-ear monitor system and bickers with their sound man to get it working right. But sound quality is not something to be compromised for this group, and hence the delay. Smart, Mathis and I head up the street to a Vietnamese restaurant and chat casually about Chicago and their gig on this night. After sitting down for a healthy meal, both are enthusiastic and eloquent in answering a myriad of questions about their music. Mathis has bright eyes and the face of an excited child as he talks passionately about jazz and politics. While Smart is more reserved, he expresses the same kind of love for playing music.

Smart, Mathis and Haas are no strangers to the road – they play over 150 gigs a year in venues throughout the country. Although they are likened to Medeski, Martin and Wood, it is Mathis's modulated bass tone and their more organic sound that is most notably different from the aforementioned trio. But like Medeski, Martin and Wood, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey pulls inspiration from a variety of music genres outside of jazz. Mathis and Smart talk at length about Wilco as we sit down for dinner. Both players are well-versed in jazz history, but are committed to creating a sound of their own. Ultimately, their devotion to the music and consistent touring should help them garner fans that value originality over the groove and innovation over tradition.

HI: Your publicist tells me you all have some reservations about being characterized as a jamband. Perhaps you could tell me what you find most limiting about that label, and why you object to it.

JS: To put it in very brief terms, the worst of the jamband world is like a one or two chord jam that has usually an increasing dynamic level. It just doesn't have a conversational up and down thing. Bands like Wilco or Bob Dylan or jazz artists create this emotional up and down. And jamband music to me seems kindred to a lot of 70's fusion, which has too many notes in it, guys wanking off on their instruments. On the high end of that is someone like Steve Kimock who is put in that group but we don't really consider him a jamband either. But he's a very tasty player. He takes music through a lot of emotional ups and downs and changes. That to us, makes better, more interesting music to watch.

RM: I shy away from terms like 'jamband' because they don't really tell you anything about the group. It's applied to so many different kinds of things that it doesn't contain any actual information about music. To say that you like jambands, doesn't tell you anything. It basically describes a circuit of venues or a type of audience member. It doesn't describe the music. If Medeski, Martin and Wood and Fareed Haque Group and moe and Yonder Mountain String Band all play the same kind of music, then I am a mouse that lives on the moon.

HI: Many of your fans are well schooled in jazz, and some may not be as knowledgeable about the genre. Do you think that people that don’t know much about jazz can still have a full appreciation of the music that you’re making? Or do you think that maybe they miss something because they don’t have that knowledge?

RM: Who knows? I definitely think that a person who has a lot of schooling in jazz would maybe have a different experience but I don't know that they would "get it" more. I mean, it's possible. I like to think that people can relate just to the purely emotional state of the music. The emotions that we're feeling when we write our music and the emotions that we're feeling while we play it, can connect directly to the heart of the listener without the middle man of the brain and the knowledge. Then it would be a purely expressive, emotional experience. But maybe that's just, idealistic.

JS: For me personally, Brian and Reed probably know a little bit more about classical music and stuff, but I love classical music and I know very little about it. But I can go and be completely washed over by it. And it's kind of refreshing, being a musician and having some areas that I haven't studied as much. Some of your judgment goes away. I think people can sometimes enjoy things more if they don't know about it because they don't have preconceived notions.

RM: It seems like if you know a lot about something, or if you think you know a lot about something, you approach it critically. Whereas if you don't know anything about it, you'll approach it like a child. So it's almost better to pretend you don't know about it, even if you do.

HI: Tell me how you decided that playing music was going to be what you wanted to do for the rest of your life. At what point were you ready to take that plunge and say that’s it, I have to do this.

RM: Have we? (laughter)

JS: For me, I was 12 years old and I went to a Rush concert. That was my first concert I ever went to. I went with my older brother.

HI: So Neil Pert was your guy, the one you emulated?

JS: Well, Ringo and John Bonham, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Rush, then Police that was my lineage. And I really focused on just those bands for a while. I really got a lot out of it I thought. It was just so exciting to me. It was like, oh my gosh, you can do this with your life? You can have a huge wrap around drum set with all these lights and people yelling for you. That's one way you can go. Or a smoky, dark, jazz club with people talking is another way you can go. (lots of laughter) But you're drawn to the music you're drawn to and you just put up with those things because it's worth it to you.

RM: I think I was about the same age – about 12. Once I got a little taste of it, it was better than anything I had ever done. I was just like, god I'm going to devote everything I've got to this. It's the only thing I've found that gave me just a direct line to happiness. No hoops to jump through, nobody to please. Just me and God and happiness, whenever I want it. I can just open the door and there it is you know?

JS: When it's working right it's just like the universe or God or however you like to think of it flowing through you. And you're not over thinking about what's happening next or what you're going to do in the next song. It's really one of the most centering, meditative ways for young hyper people such as ourselves to be able to chill out and enjoy a moment. It's like medicine.

RM: Another factor for me was that when I was really young, my parents would tell me I was smart, but I always had a really hard time at everything I tried to do. And everything I was asked to do in school was always really difficult for me. Music was really the first thing I did that wasn't difficult. I was just like wow, I do well at this! It was just a good feeling.

HI: What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t playing music?

JS: I would be just be chilling at a monastery, zen sort of place or something. Not where I'd have to be a monk, but just a spiritual, cool sort of place. Doing some spiritual work. With music it's hard to feel it sometimes; but you can build a connection with people and get some positive comments coming back. And you begin to think well maybe I am doing something decent for someone today. That's important I think, in the job that you choose. You should be producing something good for the world or helping somebody out. I would have to do something with that angle to it to feel like it has any worth or to feel like it's worth my energy and time.

RM: If I wasn't playing music I would not live in Oklahoma. I would probably relocate to some place that I could bear without traveling. Part of what I like about living in Oklahoma is that I'm not there very often. I would try to find some kind of livelihood that was harmonious with my soul. I don't need a lot to be a happy man. If I had just a spot, and could take care of me and my lady, I feel like I'd be happy to be doing many things. The same frustrations that I have playing music I would probably find in any other career and a similar reward. Maybe not the same type, but you know. I find many kinds of work rewarding.

JS: Yeah, we actually debate this a lot, in the van. Brian's got a college degree, but Reed and I don't. Not that that is the end all be all, but it sort of limits what you do. And we don't want to work in a factory or anything like that. Or in a dentist's office. (laughter)

HI: Why don’t you tell me what you love about playing jazz?

RM: One thing is that I really love to listen to jazz, though not all of it. Of all the jazz out there I probably only like 4% of it. I just like to listen to it a lot. And it feels good to play stuff that sounds like the stuff I like to listen to. Everyone likes familiarity. I like the interactive element of jazz. The sort of, spontaneous, in the moment, whoever you are at that moment on that day is cool. That's actually what makes each performance special – the fact that we are different people from day to day and that it's all about expressing that. And what's the subtle nuance of this moment as opposed to all the other moments. What's special about this very moment? And I know that's found in other kinds of music as well, but jazz really focuses on that.

JS: I think it's a good marriage of spiritual and cerebral. It required a high execution on your instrument. And we are all, I think, fairly intelligent guys and we like challenges and things like that. So simpler forms of music are rewarding also, but jazz is really technically demanding and as far as drum set it's some of the highest execution you can do in this plane except Indian music or something like that. So for me, I was drawn to it from a drum perspective initially. And then just the soul of it and it's that marriage of thinking but also not thinking at the same time. It's just a paradox, but that's why I dig it. It just draws you in. And I think not everyone in the world likes it; it's kind of an exclusive club (not that it tries to exclude people, it's open to everyone) but pretty much America doesn't care.

HI: Well yeah, I wanted to touch on that too because I think that jazz is a music that most Americans aren’t drawn to. It takes a certain kind of person to get into it. I was wondering if you saw that as a challenge? Are you compelled to win over people that don’t like jazz? Or are you more concerned with those individuals that are kind of, in the jazz world so to speak?

JS: I'd say not so much at this point. For myself I want to present it in a way that's really open and you take it how you want it. Which is how I was presented with it. No one forced it on me. And you just feel it in your soul and you want to learn more about it, or you don't. And the people that don't I would rather them just go on their way and find something that they like. Because this is a real opinion based kind of thing and you can't tell somebody what their spirit wants to feel or what makes them excited. Nobody can tell me that. So I'm not really trying to win anybody over anymore.

RM: Ditto. I would agree with that. I don't necessarily feel like I want them (the jazz world) to accept us either. Cause first off, where is the jazz world located? Can I go to the jazz world? Who gets the rights to say "well I control the jazz world, I am the jazz world! These things are inside the jazz world and these things are outside the jazz world." Most of my heroes were not accepted by the jazz world during their prime. Including guys that are so traditional it's almost cliche to like them. You know, Ellington and Louis and people that are just so mainstream jazz. It doesn't get more mainstream than Ellington. But in his day, he was the wild avant garde one that people were asking, "Is this even jazz? We're not sure." None of those guys cared about being accepted by the jazz world.

JS: Even within the term jazz, we talk about a lot of times, something more open that allows you to use hip hop, and great soul music, funk, great rock music, country, all of these different styles. For that not to somewhat infuse into the improvisational music you're making seems somewhat…

RM: Dishonest.

JS: Yeah, like we're ignoring something. All music is just as important, to me, as traditional jazz music would be. I'd like to be thought of as an open-minded improviser more than a jazz musician. Our heroes like Miles and Trane and stuff essentially were of that same kind of mind.

HI: You were saying earlier on the way here that you don’t really drink alcohol much and it seems you’re very health conscious people (both members have plates of Vietnamese prepared seafood and vegetables on their plates). How do you maintain a healthy lifestyle on the road when you guys are in the van all the time and probably have a limited budget.

RM: We go to a lot of co-ops and health food grocery stores that have juice bars and delis. We have a couple of books that you can just look up by city how to get to all these places from the highway. We do that a lot so we can get wheatgrass and fresh vegetable juice and all the stuff in the deli is organic and free range. So we usually do one meal a day there and one meal a day at a decent restaurant where we can get some good stuff.

JS: It's hard enough on the road just to keep your spirits and your energy up and your pool of inspiration. Being hungover the next day, yeah, we've all kind of experimented with that in our younger days and we're all sort of over it.

HI: Do you feel pressure from fans, after a gig, to take part in some partying?

RM: I feel pressure from myself sometimes because I'm conditioned to think that it's fun to drink. Just from years of growing up in America. You're just taught, people drink and then they have fun. And it's cause and effect. So it still sounds fun to me, even though I've learned over and over that it's not that fun.

JS: At times it is. When we're home and we want to have a glass of wine or a mixed drink.

RM: Once in a while on the road I'll have some beers. And I'll pick a night and I'll be in a certain mood and I'll drink some beers at a gig. But that's very rare. And it could never, ever become a habit.

HI: Well that’s an anomaly I think, with touring musicians. I mean, even many famous jazz players had their bouts with illegal substances.

JS: But there are other sources of relaxation we partake in…various herbal remedies…(laughter)...jazz cigarettes

RM: We find that to be a lot more conducive to a relaxed state of mind.

JS: It's natural, not processed. We like things that have limited ingredients.

HI: Let’s talk politics. You aren’t afraid to get political; several of your songs have been aimed at slamming President Bush. I was just wondering what you feel are some of the biggest challenges that liberals, such as yourself, are facing in light of his re-election?

RM: I'd say the largest challenge is that the Diebold voting machine company has Bush family members on it's board of directors.

JS: I'm from Ohio and it was one of the key states as you know. It was no time before Ken Blackwell, the Secretary of the State was like, "everything went fine!" They were being really shady about it.

HI: What are some of the issues that you feel most passionately about?

JS: The Patriot Act getting passed…

RM: The wars. Starting wars for no reason and then lying to the country about it. I mean, if you worked at McDonald's and you didn't mop the floor right and the drawer didn't balance out, you would get fired. But if you become President and you take the country to war under false pretenses and lie about it and you don't lose your job then something is wrong! Why do we hold McDonald's employees to a higher standard than we hold our elected officials? I mean, I just think that is preposterous and it just shows the degree to which they are able to control public concepts of what they're doing.

JS: Under the guise of safety and fear they are taking away more and more of our private rights and checking our internet and making the airport a nightmare. And honestly do you really feel that much safer than before 9/11?

RM: One of the things that this administration does, one of the most evil things, is the amount of money that goes to the Pentagon and the war machine that could be going to provide health care to every person in the country and research for curing disease and education, school funding, teachers salaries. The list goes on and on…stem cell research. There so many things we could be doing with that money. What have we spent now, 800 billion dollars in Iraq? A phony, fraudulent war? I mean, that's the worst thing that's been done in my lifetime. Aside from the huge atrocities to the Iraqi people and the soldiers that we sent over there, all that aside, just the money that has been wasted there is a crime against the American people. The people that chose to spend the money that way, and that continue to choose to spend the money that way are criminals and they do not love Americans or America. That's how I feel.

HI: Shifting gears. What kinds of challenges are you facing as a band right now?

JS: Sometimes personal.

RM: Jason and I want to kill each other! (laughter)

JS: Yeah, he just hates me. (laughter) It's more like, just being stuck together so much of the time. We used to tour a lot more than we do now and it doesn't matter who it is, but you're going to get a little tired of that and you just need some space. You have to give up parts of what you think – musically and personally. The climate of things in America is not exactly conducive to…

RM: ...Art.

JS: Art, of any kind. Because people are just so busy trying to make ends meet and pay their bills and wondering if their son is going to have to go fight in a war. All these various distractions and American Idols and Diet Pepsis…

RM: And the industry of selling music to people has focused on making the most money with no other considerations. There's very few people in the industry that are in positions of power that are making choices based on art or based on taste or based on a genuine love of music. The decisions are based on what will make the most money. And they hand select fifty performers and each one of those performers sells a ridiculous amount of records and that is all they care about in the upper levels of the industry. Then all the little guys are left to fend for themselves.

HI: How do you guys deal with that?

JS: Well we've had the help of outside backers thank goodness, for our last record. A man by the name of Dave Margulies that runs some festivals and various things out west has helped us a lot. And that was a blessing.

RM: And we tour a lot. We're basically traveling salesmen. The bulk of our record sales come at our gigs. And we just play and hopefully have an impact on people and then they want to leave with a disk. So that's how we deal with it really. Just keeping our spirits up, trying to play better and better music and hoping that something will come along. I mean a lot of our heroes, we were just listening to a Thelonius Monk concert from 1964 and it sounds like there are 20 people in the room.

JS: In Los Angeles.

RM: Yeah, in Los Angeles! A HUGE city of music industry and entertainment stuff and here's one of the greatest ever. And if Monk came back from the dead today and it was advertised, a hundred thousand people would go see him. But by 1964 he was about 45 years old, almost 50. He'd been gigging for a long time at that point, and was still playing to 20 people. We don't have any illusions about that. Unless you play dance music, it's difficult to get large crowds. And bands like Medeski, Martin and Wood get around it by being not only a very bold and experimental improvising unit but also having very danceable music.

JS: They've bridged the gap very nicely between the things that they wanted to do and things that were going to pack a room.

RM: Yeah, those guys are miracle workers and have earned themselves a place in music history for doing that in my opinion. But on the whole, we're pulling in 300-600 people on a great night. And for guys our age playing stuff as honest as what we play, that's great. We feel very proud and very glad for our situation. You just can't play music like this to massive crowds. But we didn't really want to. The more people, it just kind of gets diluted. A lot of our best performances have been in front of the smallest crowds we've had.

JS: In rooms that were very intimate. You could hear really well everything is really quick in the moment and we're all focused and paying attention to each other.

HI: So do you feel more pressure with a big crowd? How does that affect you? Does it make you rise to the challenge and play better?

RM: I don't know. Sometimes it even makes me feel more relaxed. Almost like the energy of the attention of that many people almost does the work for me and I just get to chill and watch. I feel like I become the audience member and the audience becomes the active component in those situations. When it's a real electric audience? I love that feeling.

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