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Published: 2004/02/26
by Jesse Jarnow

Slow Breath, Silent Mind – Jacob Fred Jazz OdysseySymbiosis Osmosis – Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey

Kufala Recordings 0059

Kufala Recordings 0062

Medeski Martin and Wood certainly started something quite remarkable. They
became a genuinely popular jazz act. In a time when few of
Manhattan's storied improvisers can fill anything but a nightclub, MMW
regularly fill theaters. Their spread has reinvested a considered energy in
the medium of the jazz power trio by tempering the avant-garde with an
accessible quality and pulling it in front of a larger audience. The
avant-garde will always have a role in society, but it takes a special
something to elevate that role from something appreciated by academics and
specialists into something that makes sense as music that one can simply sit
down and listen to, without worrying about what kind of theory and
hoohah lies behind it. Perhaps they didn't influence any of the players on a
note-for-note basis, but I don't think there's any question that MMW is
behind the recent groundswell of trios like The Bad Plus, The OM Trio, and
the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. While the former are truly special (with a fine
new album to be released by Columbia this spring), and the middle are
danceable and fun, it is the latter – the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey – who
might be the most viscerally exciting.

Now approaching their 10th anniversary, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey have
issued a pair of live albums on the Kufala label, one of the many specialty
imprints that has sprung up over the past few years to flood the market with
releases as production costs drop. The upshot is that bands like Jacob Fred
can begin issuing Albums-as-News, if that makes any sense. If a performance
is special, and they think they have something to say, out goes a new live
album. There's no need to even enter a studio. So, here comes Slow
Breath, Silent Mind and Symbiosis Osmosis – the former acoustic,
the latter electric – culled from gigs during the trio's fall 2003 outings.
Slow Breath is the more exciting of the two. By clearly showing the
boundaries (using acoustic instruments, playing standards by Ellington,
Monk, and the like), Jacob Fred demonstrate just how they're doing their
Christian best to batter those boundaries down. This is where the band is at
their fundamental best. Even if one doesn't know it, as a listener, he is
unconsciously aware of what it is capable to accomplish on an acoustic
piano. He has a finite conception of what it might sound like and what a
player can do with it. Whereas one can assign any unidentified sound he
wants with an electric keyboard, the acoustic piano is a little tougher.

Pianist Brian Haas is the star of Slow Breath. He's everywhere. On
Howard Deitz's "Alone Together," his right hand flies into the ricochets of
melody while his left hand anchors a rhythm. On this number, drummer Jason
Smart seems a little extraneous, even as he turns around into a decent drum
solo. It is on the following collective "Improvisation for STS9" that Jacob
Fred show their truest colors on Slow Breath. Beginning over a gentle
octave drone by bassist Reed Mathis, Smart flies into subtle breakbeats (the
tribute to Sector 9?) before dissolving into gently crashing ambiance.
Again, Haas ties it all together. He discovers pockets of groove inside his
bandmates' rhythms that are totally hidden at first glance and then plays
deeply within them, zipping from thundering low-end landings to impossibly
subtle upper register twinklings without losing an iota of his Zen-like
momentum. The track shows off the group's fantastically alien dynamics
before modestly sliding its way into Wayne Shorter's gentle "Fall," which
only underscores the group's playing.

The electric Symbiosis Osmosis is a little tougher to penetrate. Haas
is anchored behind his usual Fender Rhodes (armed, presumably, as usual,
with a screwdriver and other toys) and the music loses a little bit of the
Slow Breath's sense of dynamics as the band tears all across the
rhythmic map on the opening "Dubya! Stop Lying!" The music is chaotic and
free, and stunning in that – when one stops to consider what each band
member is doing at a given, random moment in the improvisation – every piece
of apparent entropy comes in precise reaction to the other voices. The
10-part improvisation starring a four-man coterie of guest saxophonists
(Skerik, Mark Southerland, Brad Houser, and Frank Catalano) is overwhelming,
and fun to listen to, though downright tiring. In some ways, it is free jazz
aerobics at its finest, but to give it anything less than one's full
attention is maddening, and the listener must choose to either sacrifice
himself fully or acknowledge that, yes, this is avant-garde and he might not
understand it all but it's damn good (which is never a very satisfying
conclusion to come to, because it feels like defeat). But what a lovely
defeat it can be.

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