After a packed show last July at Joe's Pub in New York City, the New York Times was quick to highlight a newfound "earthy vigor," characterizing the latest incarnation of Tulsa's own Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey--a quartet comprised of upright bassist Matt Hayes, drummer Josh Raymer, lap steel guitarist Chris Combs and pianist Brian Haas.
The Village Voice praised the band for its "intensely improvisatory head-fuckery" and experimental music magazine Signal to Noise likened the band's "breadth and vision" to that of jazz great Bill Frisell.
Tulsans already know JFJO is one of our greatest exports. That the world's cultural capital has discovered them just makes the band that much more exciting for Tulsa.
However, at UTW's first annual Absolute Best of Tulsa Music Awards last month, JFJO left empty handed.
Brian Haas, the band's sole original member, remained in good spirits afterward and even seemed excited about the outcome because "it shows just how much is going on in Tulsa," he said.
Now in its 15th year, the group draws from almost every genre imaginable and thus remains practically unclassifiable. JFJO's sound is in a perpetual state of metamorphosis that regenerates from an epiphany Haas experienced at age five, which is about the same time he began to take classical piano lessons.
At this juncture, the release of the band's new album One Day in Brooklyn (See UTW's review page 40) and its upcoming jam session Fri., Sept 25 at The Marquee, UTW thought it time to sit down with the band's creative force, front man Haas, for a look back and a look forward.
We Are the Champions
Haas' father Steve bought him the 45" single of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," and upon hearing the strange instrumental breakdown in the middle of the song, Haas suddenly realized his life's purpose.
Soon afterward, Haas had saved enough money to buy his first LP, Michael Jackson's Thriller, and the young aspiring musician became similarly obsessed with "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'."
"I listened to those songs hundreds, if not thousands of times, and the whole time I would be listening to those songs, I would be thinking, 'This is what I want to do; this is why I'm here,'" Haas recalled.
He continued classical lessons until age 15, when his mother, Nancy, let him quit. But Haas soon resumed them, this time focusing on jazz and the blues.
"At first I was so overjoyed...but even just the very first day of not having to practice, I missed it like crazy. I missed it so deeply that, within a few weeks, I started taking piano lessons again. But this time, they weren't classical-based," he said.
The transition permanently changed his outlook on music. "So, for the first time in my life, I was taking lessons, and they weren't classical lessons. It was just so eye-opening to me that I could even learn another style, that I could study another style; it was a brand-new concept for me," he said.
Soon enough, 16-year-old Haas began gigging professionally with his piano teacher (who remains nameless for personal reasons upon Haas' request) at country clubs, the Petroleum Club and other similar venues. It was Haas' first time performing outside of the usual classical setting. However, it wasn't long before Haas tired of the "easy listening gigs" and was ready to return to his roots.
"Doing that brought back my taste for classical music," he said.
In high school, Haas then began studying under University of Tulsa piano professor Dr. Roger Price. His goal: to compete in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, one of the Western world's most prestigious. The event is held every four years and asks contestants to present up to three full recital programs, a new work performance, chamber music and two concertos. Haas often found himself practicing up to 12 hours per day.
Meanwhile, during what little free time he had, Haas would sneak into old blues clubs to hear longtime Tulsa favorites Steve Pryor and Glenn R. Townsend. These illicit visits ignited Haas' draw toward more casual, funky outlets.
"It showed me people enjoying music in such a different context. It showed me people enjoying music in such a visceral, sexy, drunken, wild way, and what I was coming from was people listening to music seated in auditoriums, very prim and proper, dressed up while the performer who's also dressed up was onstage." Haas likened the experience to being in a "different country."
"Growing up in South Broken Arrow at Indian Springs Country Club and then being able to drive into Tulsa and go to these clubs where all of these beautiful legends were playing was definitely life-changing for me. It definitely changed my whole viewpoint about music," Haas said.
Furthermore, these musicians earned money while having fun. "I didn't know it was even possible," he admitted.
Haas continued with his classical studies, enrolling at the University of Tulsa on a full-ride music scholarship. He was also still amassing enormous amounts of material in preparation for the Van Cliburn.
Soon after beginning classes, Haas began to notice a group of eclectically dressed, scruffy young students who always seemed to be having a good time amusedly being themselves, but was there more to it? Struck by their constant laughter, Haas was fascinated.
"Their fun was absolutely contagious, and I wanted it. Dearly," he said.
These men--Dove McHargue, Kyle Wright, Matt Leland, Rod Mackey, Matt Edwards and Sean Layton--joined Haas to form Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. Originally an octet with a horn section, the band name blends two concepts especially meaningful to Haas. When his mother became pregnant with younger brother Richard, Brian begged his parents to name the baby "Jacob Fred," but to no avail. "Jazz Odyssey" comes from a particularly poignant scene from the movie Spinal Tap.
Shortly thereafter, Haas made a life-altering decision: He decided to abandon classical studies and devote himself entirely to JFJO. This "cathartic" moment centered primarily on his ideas about musical improvisation. However, the decision was difficult; Dr. Price thought Haas had lost his mind.
"A lot of people were very confused about my decision to switch over so quickly and, in fact, I was confused by it," said Haas. "I had a lot of judgments about comparing jazz to classical music. I thought classical music was a superior music...But I had this realization that all I was doing was playing Beethoven's and Chopin's improvisations that they had written down."
Haas questioned spending so much time learning other peoples' improvisations when he could create his own.
My Mojo's in Tokyo
Jacob Fred began gigging in 1993 at the Grapevine on Brookside (now Oliver's Twist). According to Haas, the band was still conspicuously incomplete.
"There were a lot of half-ass, triad-oriented bass lines going on without a bassist, and we were really lucky and blessed in that some of the guys in Dove's dorm were talking about this high school bass player who was considered prodigious."
Haas soon contacted Reed Mathis, 17, whose mother showed reservations about her son playing with a bunch of college jazz guys. Nancy Haas was able to quell Ms. Mathis' fears, and Mathis joined Haas and his younger brother Richard (who played drums for the band in 2001) for a jam session in late winter of 1993.
Mathis, who could not be reached for an interview, promptly joined Jacob Fred in early 1994, and their gigs at the Gold Coast Coffee House (now Garlic Rose) on Brookside began.
Haas' major influences at the time included punk project The Illegitimate Sons of Jackie O and Chad Malone. His personal tastes lent a pseudo-imperious energy to the band's overall sound, which echoed John Coltrane infused with hip-hop.
"Those gigs were incredible...they were just advertised as Punk Jazz at Gold Coast: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey," said Haas.
"Tulsa's punk rock scene was amazing. Genius. A lot of the bands were super funky, playing super unique grooves and incredible melodies. I worshipped Chad Malone, Dane Rife, Dwayne Jones and indeed all three of those men. I have as much to owe to those guys as Coltrane or Thelonius Monk or Miles Davis. They showed me how much fun it could be to make music for the people--to make music for people who were, you know, moshing and dancing and screaming and rioting and loving and so vigorous with so much screaming and hollering, people just beating on each other. Just such real, visceral, human music. It helped show me the way out of this classical world that I had immersed myself in."
During the fall of that same year, JFJO began to play shows at the Eclipse, an original, live music club at 6th and Peoria, which is in the process of re-opening after being closed for nearly a decade. The group was gaining momentum in Tulsa with its "super aggressive, super fast and super technical" sound.
"Every time Jacob Fred played at the Eclipse, it would be packed. The music was vibrant; it was aggressive; it was in your face. We all had our shirts off," Haas said.
JFJO's released its first album Live at the Lincoln Continental in 1995. Recorded live from the Eclipse, it was facilitated by a man named Martin Halstead in exchange for a 12-pack of Guinness.
The guys had begun to earn a little bit of money from the rapidly multiplying gigs and were missing huge chunks of class time at TU, said Haas. Live at the Lincoln Continental was sent all across the country. During that same year, the band started to tour in the Midwest, developing a following in Austin and Chicago.
JFJO's second album, also recorded at the Eclipse, unintentionally created quite the national stir. Released in 1996, Live in Tokyo was made to sound like a massive stadium show replete with rowdy applause and an introduction by an emcee in Japanese.
"It actually comes off like a set at a jazz festival. We put an import stamp on the cover of the record and put all of the liner notes in Japanese and in English," Haas said.
Many people, especially club owners, assumed that the record was indeed recorded in Tokyo, which of course gave Jacob Fred a discernable edge, though comically artificial. Haas maintained honesty throughout the humorous yet pivotal misunderstanding.
"I made it a point to never lie about it. I would say that we recorded that in Tulsa. But the funny thing was, none of these clubs on the West or East coast questioned whether or not that was a real record that we made in Japan," he said.
This bit of legerdemain landed JFJO its first NYC show that same year, opening for Galactic, a funky instrumental act out of New Orleans, also playing its first show in the Big Apple. West coast tours soon followed, and Jacob Fred was traversing the entire country after only a few years of playing together.
"We were very fortunate to be able to play a lot of great clubs in a lot of major markets right off the bat, opening up for a lot of great big nationals because a lot of these club owners thought we were this wild, Midwestern band that was playing festivals in Tokyo," said Haas.
JFJO continued to tour during the late 1990's and by the turn of the century Accurate Records (responsible for firsts from Medeski Martin and Wood, Morphine and Jazz Mandolin Project) picked up JFJO's third album, Welcome Home, which was also recorded by Halstead. Impressed by Live in Tokyo, the company also distributed the new CD nationally and internationally.
According to Haas, life on the road became increasingly taxing, which eventually led to a rearrangement of the lineup.
"As the band continued to evolve and tour, people started to get burned out on touring; people started to get mean; people started to cry, so we became a trio in 2000," Haas said.
Haas, Mathis and drummer Jason Smart continued to release a blend of both live and studio albums, and in 2001, landed a record deal with Knitting Factory Records in New York City. But, alas, the company was about to go out of business and as a last hurrah, spent its remaining capital to produce All is One: Live in New York City.
The deal served as a catalyst to open with a number of big name tours including the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Les Claypool, The Meters and Charlie Hunter.
In the midst of all of this, US News and World Report published a music issue in 2002 that included a "New Jazz" page, listing 10 of the best new jazz bands from around the globe. Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey claimed the number one spot, and the band's exposure continued to rise exponentially.
"We received a snowball of press after that," said Haas. The band then signed with Hyena Records of Brooklyn, as they churned out music, toured the U.S. and other countries as well.
JFJO played its first, real international gig in Brazil during the 2005 Mistura Fina Jazz Festival in Rio de Janeiro and also at Cento de Artes in Ouro Preto. Later that year, the band traveled to Finland for the Tampere Jazz Happening.
The trio's 2006 schedule was packed with two two-week tours around Western Europe and Scandinavia, including several stops in the Netherlands, Italy and Germany.
The band's current drummer, Josh Raymer, 23 and another Tulsa native, came onboard in 2007 when Smart left the band. Jacob Fred then returned to Europe, finally debuting in the United Kingdom in 2008.
April 2008 saw the release of Lil' Tae Rides Again, the group's first album featuring Raymer and produced by a particularly eccentric native Tulsan, Tae Meyulks. Figuring out how to recreate the tracks live catapulted Jacob Fred into an unprecedented bout of punctuated equilibrium.
"The evolution of the new sound definitely started when Reed decided that he wanted to play lap steel, for some reason, on a lot of the electronica parts, and we were trying to re-create Lil' Tae Rides Again. Suddenly, it totally changed the sound of the band," Haas recalled.
JFJO's new feeling has endured. "Right now, the focus of the band sound, for me, is Chris Combs on lap steel," said Haas.
Combs, 25, first joined Jacob Fred for a few shows while Mathis continued playing bass, lap steel and guitar. Initially a fill-in position, Combs began touring with the band full-time in June 2008.
Since he first heard Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey in 1999 at Mayfest, Combs has remained an avid listener. His presence in the band is a natural fit because he "learned the dialect early." Furthermore, Combs shares a solid musical history with Raymer, and their chemistry is remarkably palpable.
A native Tulsan, Combs learned to play the guitar at a very young age, but he taught himself lap steel specifically for Jacob Fred.
Bassist Matt Hayes completed the current quartet, which first performed together at the NYC Winter Jazz Fest January 10, 2009.
Return of the Natives
Although Jacob Fred spends a great deal of time on the road, the group returns to Tulsa between tours to rehearse new material and to perform at home.
The quartet's first record together, One Day in Brooklyn, was released September 1. It was recorded in April during JFJO's second jaunt to the East coast this year. It's a six-track blend that retains the band's tonal je ne sais qois, while showcasing its collective diversity and gentler sound.
This is also the first album released under Jacob Fred's own record label, Kinnara Records, which is distributed in North America by RED/MRI, a Sony Music subsidiary. Kinnara is a Sanskrit word meaning "heavenly music." This is a milestone for any band, one that inherently gives JFJO ultimate creative control.
"We can actually put out these incredible concepts of ours and promote them and take care of ourselves through owning our own record company. We're able to take care of our own business in a clearer way and take care of our music in a clearer way. We're super excited about that," Haas explained.
Tulsans can get a live taste of the EP on September 25 at the Marquee in celebration of its release. The all-ages, non-smoking show begins around 9pm and consists of one long set that will end by midnight. Early bird tickets are available at several Tulsa locations for $10 or for $15 at the door.
The debut of Jacob Fred's latest project is yet to come, though; the concept has been in the works for many years. Ludwig superimposes the distinct Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey language upon Beethoven's Third and Sixth Symphonies.
The seeds for Ludwig were planted long before the quartet was established. It is derived from Franz Liszt transcriptions of the pieces, first published in 1863. Haas said that while much of the original arrangement began with Mathis in 2008, it has undergone numerous transformations, which is the nature of such a work.
In virtue of investing hundreds and hundreds of hours of practice, JFJO has reshaped much of it in order to fit the quartet context. The interpretation has received additional input from classical composer Noam Faingold from New York City, who worked out parts for a 50-piece orchestra meant to accompany Jacob Fred as part of the project.
"The concept was a long time coming. It's definitely something the band as a whole talked about, even in the '90s-- the concept of reinventing some of these genius classics that taught us so much," said Haas.
"The main thing that Reed did was write a chord symbol above every bar in every measure that enabled him to get a sweeping concept of the overall phrase and he was able to turn this music into something like a Real Book or Fake Book chart."
The project is particularly special for Haas because it is the first time he has returned to his classical roots in well over a decade.
"It's really exciting for me to be truly returning to my roots, truly returning to classical music in such a broad sense. It's such a new take on classical music," he said.
The other members of the band are equally excited about Ludwig. Hayes said that he especially values the depth of study required for a project of this scope, which often requires eight-hour rehearsals.
"I can't really say enough about it, but then I can't really say anything about it."
Ludwig has inspired him to also return to his own classical education. Hayes has recently spent a great deal of time listening to solo cello recordings of the Third Symphony, inspiring him to revisit his interest in the genre, which had been a big part of his life.
Before joining Jacob Fred, Hayes played with the TCC Signature Symphony for almost an entire season. "It makes me want to get back in the pit with a bunch of other bass players around. It's really piqued my love and need for classical music," he said.
Like Combs, Hayes also shares deep musical roots with Raymer, which accounts for the quartet's solid rhythm section.
"Raymer and I, as far as a playing connection, it's the deepest I've ever felt," Hayes admitted. "We are just right there with each other and that comes from spending all that time together."
The most exciting aspect of the project, however, arose during a conversation between Haas and OK Mozart Executive Director Shane Jewell on August 8 at Cain's Ballroom immediately following UTW's ABoT Music Awards.
Jewell was immediately intrigued by the concept, which Haas intends to perform globally. In less than a week, Bartlesville's OK Mozart board voted to book JFJO as the festival's opening act next season.
"I am so pleased that Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has agreed to allow OK Mozart to host the world premiere of their Ludwig movement. I believe that a festival of this caliber is the best fit to bring their rearrangement of Beethoven's symphonies to the public," said Jewell.
The timing of the project was pivotal for the annual June festival because those in charge had been searching for ways to make it more accessible to a younger crowd.
"This fusion of classical music and jazz is a welcome addition to our 2010 lineup, as we strive to incorporate music into our festival that will appeal to a wide range of audiences," Jewell explained.
Until then, Jacob Fred will continue to reshape and rework Ludwig in preparation for its world debut.
Following the September 25 One Day in Brooklyn celebration at The Marquee, 222 N. Main, JFJO travels northward through the Midwest to open for Phish bassist Mike Gordon. Afterward, the band hits the East Coast and Canada for a series of album release shows. For more information about Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, visit jfjo.com
Share this article: