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Published: 2004/03/01
by Jesse Jarnow

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Tonic, NYC- 2/25


So, apparently, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is heady. Like Sector 9, like
whoa, heady. I discovered this trolling the web for articles after
seeing them play two sets at Tonic the other night. It's strange because
there was nothing about their music that suggested that, really, which is to
their credit. I just figured that they were some Berklee grads that got
mixed up with the hippies by mistake. But, nope. Either way, the music that
they made during their two long sets at Tonic was quite good — good enough
to make me go home and go trolling for articles to find out where they came
from. Oklahoma, actually. And, like fellow Okies, The Flaming Lips, they've
managed to filter their influences into the kind of highly personal form
that can probably only come from staring at nothing for long periods of time
and willing it to twist itself into new shapes.

But, beyond the Oklahoma thing, I don't have a clear sense of the band's
history. Over their 10 years, they've had an ever-changing tide of members,
manifesting itself most recently with a new drummer for this tour, replacing
Jason Smart — not mentioned at all on the band's website, and referenced
only obliquely by pianist Brian Haas during the first set of the gig.
Besides Haas, the only other steady member of the band is bassist/cellist
Reed Mathis. Haas and Mathis are both powerhouse players, manic in the way
John Medeski was often described during his band's early days, which they
demonstrated amply at Tonic. Haas is explosive, especially on the acoustic
piano. (It's nice that they're able to play clubs that own actual pianos.)
At Tonic, his right hand was nimble, frequently flying upwards to deliver
lighter-than-air arpeggios, his left hand laying down dense, weird rhythms.
Mathis, meanwhile, lost himself in his whammy pedal, playing melodies an
octave above what his bass usually plays it (though he reached for it maybe
a tad too often).

Like Sector 9, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey seem to want to transform their
music out of an instinct towards organic experimentation — that is, pushing
at the bounds of their chosen musics by playing with the kinds of sounds
they can get out of their instruments. Unlike Sector 9, Jacob Fred – especially Mathis – seems to shy away from synthesized sources in favor of
acoustic instruments, such as Mathis's (non-upright) acoustic bass and
cello, or even Haas's Fender Rhodes electric (though not electronic) piano
(absent at Tonic). Unlike countless free jazz musicians, who also want to
liberate sound from their instruments, Jacob Fred's approach doesn't seem to
be particularly violent. At Tonic, Haas was a far from gentle player, often
leaping off his stool mid-song (likewise, he managed to dislodge one of the
piano's pedals), but – ultimately – he is respectful of the instrument.
Likewise they seem to have solid schooling behind them, even if it was
acquired later in life, turning in an excellently marching rendition of
Charles Mingus' "Fables of Faubus," as a lovely version of Duke Ellington's
"In a Sentimental Mood," Mathis driving the melody with his whammy pedal (an
arrangement found on the recent Slow Breath, Silent Mind). The
background allows their chaos to be far more effective.

Smart (or perhaps just a drummer more comfortable playing with Mathis and
Haas) was sorely missed, however. The new drummer – didn't catch his name – seemed a bit uncomfortable, falling back on jazz-funk grooves while Mathis
and Haas were bursting like busted clockwork. Their style, flitting from
idea to idea with abandon, is hyperactive, to say the least. It will be
curious to see if they can maintain this kind of energy as they get older.
At the moment, they seem like a band that will be rewarding to watch – that
is, filled with ideas and the will to communicate them – as they mutate
through whatever transition comes next.

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