After an old band mate of mine from Vermont contacted me randomly in the Philadelphia area on a Wednesday night, we decided that we needed to go see some music as the itinerary for our catching up.
Coincidentally, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, a band we both were familiar with and respect, happened to be in town for the evening as their long fall tour began to reach its destination. So it did not take much to get us out to the dank, smoke filled corner bar known as the North Star as an autumn rain sprayed the Delaware Valley.
A quick conversation before the show with Brian Haas revealed the strain and fatigue setting in as another long, winding journey around this great country of ours neared its finality. The Fred embarked on quite the ambitious fall tour. However, the pianist extraordinaire was more than appreciative of the nice turnout, especially on a rainy weeknight. In a strange twist of irony, a couple of heads casually mentioned that they were at the show strictly due to curiosity arisen from the buzz that surrounds the band, and directly inspired by the glowing reviews they have received of late. One mentioned informative and inspiring recent words from bassist Reed Mathis, another claimed he was ready to be ‘mind-fucked’.
Without much fanfare, the trio took the stage and immediately launched into a composition that could be described as schizophrenic. Led by wailing tonal sonics via Mathis and lyrical bashing from skins-man Jason Smart, the opener traveled British trip-hop, noise rock, punk, and ambience in its first minute.
The second song continued in that tradition, replacing any beat science with a bluesy edge, and a little calypso for good measure. Reed manipulated feedback and other assorted sounds with the neck of an acoustic bass. That disjointed blues, and the third song, both Reed Mathis compositions, were certainly frantic and obtuse, yet the bassist seemed to find serenity in the cacophony, swaying from side to side and moving with the waves of sound he was creating.
I sensed early on that Mathis was somewhat detached from the band’s mission and in his own world, prancing around his stage space in an oblivious bliss-world, but maybe that was his vision taking hold of the songs. After Brian revealed the latter tune, “Lovejoy,” was Reed’s take on the joy of living (in Latin it would be “Levendis”), I wondered why to me it seemed like a cop theme song run through the washing machine at Owsley Stanley’s house. Go figure. Brian would blow wild Klezmer melodies into the melodica that sat atop his tortured Fender Rhodes. The melodica played a grandiose part in the soundscape of many songs, particularly the first few. Smart stopped on a dime and met Reed for a Latin bit. At this moment it occurred to me that they could probably record an album soundtrack to the movie Sybil, no problem.Two Jason Smart compositions followed, the first “Calm Before the Storm,” containing a free-jazz seventies vibe that pulsed through this twisted post-metal noise-feast. Another penned by the drummer was the sonic story of getting lost with “their intelligent friends the Redwoods,” which began as a walking jazz groove, progressing carelessly into something resembling Thurston Moore writing accompaniment to “Where the Wild Things Are.” Somewhere embedded in this song lie the deep connection between the band and their towering Northern California comrades.
Throughout the course of their animated set, I could not help but notice how intense Haas’s head banging was. Whether he’s seated, crouched, playing piano and/or blowing into his toys, his picture perfect thrashing is approaching legendary status. Along with his ‘Chick Corea on methamphetamine’ Rhodes antics, the head bang is a perfect compliment and leaves jaws on the floor (and a sore neck for Brian, I imagine). Somewhere in heaven, Cliff Burton is smiling.
At right about the middle mark of the evening’s performance, Haas announced that the band would now begin to improvise, which made me laugh aloud, as if to say they hadn’t been thus far. Taking the song name from somebody in the front rows, “Do You Have Snot in Your Hair? (That’s What She Said),” this improv was a short ditty that consciously teased a groove in between distorted punk riffage. Brian’s commonplace spastic Rhodes assault was humbled on this number, which the audience, “friends” as Brian affectionately dubbed us, helped create by their energy. Haas relentlessly thanked the crowd throughout the performance for their “energy.”
Haas’s maniacal presence seems the polar opposite of Mathis’s calm and soulful stage demeanor. It’s often up to Smart to act as a mediator to their entrenched performance personalities. Sometimes it’s a tough job, other times the drummer works wonders. A prime example of the latter was during the set’s highlight “Vernal Equinox” which contained such a majestic melody it brought smiles, made eyes well up with that warm sentimental “almost cry” that truly great melodies induce. The song found the first ‘groove’ of the evening, traversed post-punk rawness and London reggae, with Mathis deeply ensconced in the dub drop. I was equally impressed with the dynamics of Smart’s ragga drum style and flailing lyrical punk bashing. Smart certainly is one of the more lyrical (and confident) drummers I have ever heard.At this point in the show people were just calling out songs, and through this interaction I began to understand the evolution of the band. “Seven in Six,” a rhythmic riddle of a number, probably sounded quite different in its incarnation a few years back. Judging from the direction of the band’s sound, the new sonic tricks gave the tune a new life for the band to manipulate. Same can be said for “Ski Ball Over the Ocean,” before which Brian explained a story of being stranded in Santa Monica with Reed one Christmas and having nothing but the beach boardwalk game to entertain them. Haas lamented that they hadn’t played the song in years, and as they delved into the beginning a warm smile and sway came over Mathis as the Fred reinterpreted stories of yesterday while reinventing themselves and old numbers at the wish of the audience.
After some minimal merchandise plugging, including their acoustic live disc from Telluride, the home stretch of tonight’s odyssey had arrived. One of the last songs of the evening, and my friend Dave’s favorite, was the aural story of the Oklahoma State Fair, “The Muppet Babies Get Lost At The State Fair.” Apparently, the band lives just a half-mile from the fair, and trusting Brian’s word I am sure it is a strange place to visit, let alone live a stones throw from. When people come out of the woodwork In Oklahoma, you know you are dealing with some characters. The song truly painted the picture of this twisted culture and carnival, with distorted merry-go-round anthems carrying a lumbering waltz that spat with toothless wonder. The cacophonous number was Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey in a nutshell: schizophrenic, anti-methodical, spur of the moment, calculated, and most of all, for lack of a more suitable word, intense.
[Published on: 10/16/02]
- BERKFEST 2002- collab with Robbie WK (B.Getz on JamBase)
- KARL DENSON’S TINY UNIVERSE IN NEW YORK CITY 2002 (B.Getz on JamBase)