Amidst the chaos of the police-mounted horses, television cameras, stretch limos and oil-tycoon lobbyists that accompanied the Republican National Convention, a lowly white trailer, decked with radical, left-wing bumper sticker philosophies, made its unassuming way through the hectic city streets of New York City. Despite terrorist warnings, heightened security and code orange alerts all around, the little liberal trailer that could managed to make its way, without incident, through the congestion of midtown, past the red, white and blue smattered arena and came quietly to rest on a small side street in the Lower East Side. After the driver gave the nod, the occupants filed out, arms raised in a stretch, and the group proceeded nonchalantly across the street to an unmarked door where they were greeted with knowing handshakes.
I had to laugh at the irony of it all. How the epitome of a potential police shakedown was in actuality, a passive jazz trio from Oklahoma here to play the city’s non-descript, yet prestigious club Tonic. It was a fitting backdrop for a band that has been both adamantly vocal about the current administration, and continuously establishing themselves as contemporary revolutionaries.
Now, with a decade behind them and a focused vision of the path ahead, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey makes a clear statement with their first studio album in three years, the appropriately titled, Walking With Giants. And they are indeed, as the jazz community can no longer deny that three young men from Tulsa (bassist Reed Mathis, pianist Brian Haas and drummer Jason Smart) are bound to become respected jazzmen, capable of utilizing the traditional stride laid before them, and pushing it with innovative techniques one step further.
So while the GOPers romped it up with George W. over at the Garden, we spent the afternoon hanging at Tonic with Jacob Fred. By the time we wrapped up our bar stool discussion, if there was any remaining doubt that they were finally earning some respect from the jazz elite, the photographer from Downbeat began setting up for their exclusive photo shoot and I headed back out the door into convention mayhem.
You’ve been through quite a lot as a band in order to make it to your ten year anniversary. Before the three of you committed to the trio, what were the formative years like in Oklahoma as a larger, horn-heavy band?
Reed Mathis: The band started in a circle of disgruntled music students at the University of Tulsa. Brian was getting a classical piano degree [and he] got real burnt out on the classical approach, [so he] started studying jazz, hanging with the jazz students. They needed a bassist, they asked around, they called me. I was going to high school at the time…[this is in the winter ‘94]. So that was the first lineup - eight people - saxophone, trombone, trumpet, drums, keys, bass, guitar and percussion. We did a few shows, real casually, and the music was just off the charts. Lots of arrangements, it was improvised, but a lot of the stuff was written for that group. And it was cool having all those voices, we did that for about five, six years, something like that.
The big change came in 2000. Certain things were happening. We started doing side gigs as a trio - just the rhythm section from the group. With seven soloists and seven composers in a band, it just gets so diluted. Everyone is compromising so much. So when we started playing as a trio, there was just so much creativity - it was like letting a horse run free. Then at the same time, we signed with a booking agency and a management company that was allowing us to tour constantly, whereas before we were touring in two or three week spurts. So everybody wasn’t ready to handle that, everyone’s commitment level was at a different point, and it all sort of coalesced, we didn’t force it, but we definitely wanted it. As soon as we started playing as a trio, it was just night and day. And Brian and I related to each other more than anybody else in the group related to anybody else in the band, musically. We were coming from a similar place, similar priorities. And about three weeks into it, we were looking at like sixty shows in sixty-five days, and then another tour a week after that one ended. And [the other guys] were just like, “[no way], I don’t want to live in a van with seven other people.” And it was just perfect for us, because we were way more satisfied by the trio.
But that being said, some of the music the large group made was exceptional. The writing was great and the group improvising was dialed in. When everyone was really paying attention, and being selfless, it was just magic. We made an album for Accurate Records in ’98, called Welcome Home that I think really showcases the best of what the seven piece did. it’s a similar vision to what we do now - the germ is intact - but that album really showcases a great band I think.
Forming a jazz band in Tulsa isn’t exactly the recipe for a thriving music career. You must have faced a number of early limitations?
Brian Haas: That’s why we started touring really early. We started touring after the band had barely been together a year. As far as Midwestern cities, there isn’t that big of a difference - Tulsa, Dallas, St. Louis, Kansas City - the arts are the first thing to go if there’s any problem financially with schools. So when the band was only together two years, we started doing New York City, we put out our second album, we made it look like an import to get us into the coastal clubs.
But America is just so homogenized. If anything, I think being from Tulsa has helped us have a more original sound. Jason didn’t grow up in Tulsa, he grew up in Ohio, but it’s a similar deal.
Jason Smart: Yeah, we talk about periods where Tulsa and Cincinnati at least had like a cool, rock thing going on for a minute in like the early 90s. I knew a lot of really creative folks, but then [it just went away] and the great clubs [closed].
RM: That was the astonishing thing. When we started Jacob Fred, we were playing in front of crowds up to 300 to a 1,000 in the first year…3,000 at one show. They were outdoor events that were just packed. It was really exploding in the mid-90s. Nowadays, [playing in Tulsa] we’re hometown heroes if we get 400 people to come out.
So you eventually establish yourselves as a jazz trio, and spend the next few years building a national momentum. But rather than opting for that comfortable, groove route, with this record - as the title depicts - you move even further into that coveted jazz realm by utilizing a strict acoustic instrumentation.
RM: When we first started in ‘94, Brian was playing piano. We used the Rhodes to do rock clubs and stuff like that, [mainly because] when we were touring, there weren’t pianos in most of the places we played. I mean, 90% of the jazz that we love is acoustic - and its kind of a misnomer to say that we’ve gone acoustic, or that we’re playing acoustic or that this record is acoustic, because I don’t think I’ve heard any trio have a bassist use as many different sounds and textures as we use. And it’s the furthest thing from acoustic bass you could possibly get. It’s more electric than electric is. So we’re not really making acoustic music, we’re using an acoustic piano. But we’ve been wanting to do that forever. I mean, I can’t speak for Brian, but just to my ears, the Rhodes is such a beautiful thing, but it has it’s sound. Miles [Davis] talks about that in his autobiography. He says the Rhodes piano is great because it has its own sound, its own Rhodes voice. [But] after ten years, someone as unique and creative as Brian can benefit from having multiple voices. Just like I like to have multiple voices on the bass.
BH: Yeah, the biggest switch that we’ve made is to get me onto acoustic piano.
JS: Most of the places that have an acoustic piano also have an environment where people can come in and sit, and we’re not feeling pressure to move the crowd as much. Although we love to do that in some settings…
But for younger players like yourself, being taken seriously as respected jazz musicians, by the jazz community as a whole is no small task - The Bad Plus was berated recently in JazzTimes. So the decision with this album to draw a definitive line in the sand and establish yourselves as talented jazz composers, you’re also distancing yourselves from the more accessible Rhodes, funk/groove material that a majority of younger audiences flock to.
RM: I don’t think we made a conscious effort to do anything career wise. The primary motivation for making this record was the sound. We wanted the music to sound that way. Not because of what sort of effect that would have…we like that sound.
BH: And me getting burnt out on the sound of the Rhodes, and my friends getting burnt on the sound of the Rhodes. I’m a pianist - I’ve been playing piano since I was five years old, and have played nothing but piano for hours everyday from age five to twenty. I didn’t even get a Rhodes till I was twenty. And I feel like I’m better at acoustic piano than I am at Rhodes - I feel like they’re separate instruments - Rhodes is totally viable and I love the way there are hammers striking tuning rods, but - we didn’t make a conscious decision. But you’re right - whenever we were listening to what the new tunes sounded like acoustically…
Well really, the big thing that kind of changed our heads on it was, we got to do the Telluride Jazz Festival in 2002, and we got to do it acoustic. And it was kind of uncomfortable on stage, we couldn’t quite tell what was happening, and then we listened to the tapes and we were like “oh, this is the best Jacob Fred ever!” So that was our main motivation. The music is better, we’re interacting better, the dialog is better, we can hear each other better, its quieter. That Rhodes, you can put it on 2 and it’s still the loudest thing on stage. It just changes everybody’s dynamics.
But we’re definitely really influenced by a wide variety of music that is not traditional, acoustic jazz.
Yeah, you certainly have rock undertones - much like The Bad Plus - and that leads to a lot of the jazz aficionados having a difficult time accepting and digesting it as true jazz, and not some trendy offshoot.
BH: I think people give music “genres” because they don’t want to have to work and listen. I think some people go “oh, that’s that shit, and that’s that shit,” but really its just music that we’re writing and improvising. We’re not intending it to fit into any genre. The fact that all these people genre’lize everything, ‘cause their ears are lazy, people have lazy ears. That’s why people dog The Bad Plus. “Oh that can’t be jazz, the drummer is playing rock beats, so that’s jam music.”
RM: Well they said Bird wasn’t jazz. Downbeat Magazine said Charlie Parker was playing anti-jazz.
JS: How can an improvisational art form survive if it doesn’t change, add new beats and different things…it has to or its gonna sound like the 1920s forever.
RM: I mean jazz itself at its inception was a union of the descendant of European song forms, with African beats. That’s how it started. Why should that end?
BH: We’re really influenced by classical music too. I think it’s really obvious on this album what our true influences are. I grew up listening to only jazz and classical music. For better or for worse, that’s the truth. And as I got older my parent’s record collection expanded, with smatterings of Prince and Michael Jackson mixed in with way too much classical music. And it comes out in the album. We’ve had a lot of reviews on this tour where the reviewers were hip enough to notice like, “wow, they’re fusing jazz and classical.” And we’re like, “yeah, somebody gets it.” Instead of saying we’re jazz-funksters or something.
Well the organized chaos that complex, free jazz compositions create…that can be a tough listen for the untrained ear more accustomed to rock lines.
BH: Lately we have been consciously creating forms together in a way that we’ve never done before. We’re definitely reigning in the chaos. We are playing free jazz, but we’re playing beautiful free jazz, with melodies and harmonies that we’re creating, and phrases that we’re improvising on the spot. And now more than ever, I think it makes sense to a listener. Hopefully as we keep getting older it will make more sense to everybody. But now more than ever Reed and I are consciously using Radiohead, Coldplay, Beatles…
JS: it’s a refinement process of taking the raw material and hopefully shaping it. One of our favorite groups is a band from Boston called the Fringe and they play free, and they’re some of the most amazing people…they’ve been playing for more than 20 years, and they [make] like these cool forms and stuff that sound like standards, that can go anywhere.
I’m actually glad you mentioned them. The Fringe is the perfect example of an overlooked, obscure Boston treasure, that will never receive the greater acclaim they deserve. So going into the studio to make this record, and knowing jazz is the toughest market to make a living, knowing those guys are always going to be downstairs playing The Lizard Lounge to 20 people…why not just ride the funk/groove train forever? It’ll always sell tickets on Friday night.
BH: We made a decision to make the music first, [we’re] devoted to the music over everything else. Over money, over fame…over everything. We just made a commitment as musicians that that’s the role of this band in our life, is that it’s devoted to music first. It’s for us to compose for. And we’ve gotten very lucky I think, because we’ve been extremely uncompromising with our vision of the ensemble and people are totally waking up to it. And that’s one thing that people love about it, is that, all we care about is the music - that our whole gimmick, is that we don’t have a fucking gimmick. We don’t really play covers, we don’t go way out of our way to make it lowest common denominator, we just try to play the most beautiful, improvised music as possible. And those are our diehard fans. They love us, because its just honest and we don’t have a gimmick, and we’re just making music for music.
For more info, see jfjo.com
Live photography by David Bann and Adam Marcinek