POSTED ON MAY 18, 2011:
Jacob Fred revisits Tulsa's darkest days with the Race Riot Suite
Over the past 17 years, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has gone through a distinct evolution, both in its membership and its stylistic approach.
The group, led by Brian Haas, has always paid respect to its jazz lineage, and incorporated traditional elements into a distinctly modern and open approach. No matter where the band's muse has taken it, the band has always managed to push boundaries.
Last year's debut of Ludwig, the group's interpretation of Beethoven's Third and Fifth symphonies with a full orchestra, seemed at the time like the milestone of the group's career. Never content to sit still, however, and less than an hour after the band completed the performance, Haas was telling me about the band's next project, an instrumental narrative penned by lap steel and guitarist Chris Combs, entitled The Race Riot Suite.
In the 11 months since that evening, JFJO not only released its latest album, Stay Gold, and toured it relentlessly but also found time to complete the composition, record it at The Church Studios and assemble and all-star cast of musicians to premiere the suite this Friday night at Williams Theater in the Tulsa performing Arts Center.
I recently sat down with Chris Combs, who became a full time member of JFJO in 2009 after joining the group on tour, to discuss the suite and what its composition entailed.
"The time leading up to Ludwig was crazy," Combs said. "We were rehearsing a lot -- 8 to 12 hours a day -- and it was Jeff's (Harshbarger, the band's double-bassist) first gig with the band, so the pressure was pretty high."
It was during that time, even amidst all of the rehearsing, that Combs began demo recordings for The Race Riot Suite, playing all of the parts himself.
"Ludwig was crucial to the composition of the suite," he said. "Just to get inside Beethoven's mind and see how he thought. That and reading the charts. We would all be reading the music, then stop and go into an open section to improvise.
"That's how the suite works," Combs continued. "There are charts for all of the players and instruments and we'll read to a point, then get to an open section and all is thrown to the wind for improvisation."
Scrolling back, Combs revealed that the composition itself has been a nearly a 16 month process that started slowly, inspired by his research and reading about the Tulsa race riots of 1921.
"I've always been fascinated by the subject," he said. "Both how it has shaped the city and how it is still handled, which is largely ignored."
As he continued to research the race riots, Combs slowly started developing snippets of music. None of them were necessarily connected, but all were inspired by or the emotional result of his research and reading old newspaper articles from the era.
At the same time, the band had been wanting to do work with trumpeter Steven Bernstein and saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and wanted to do something with a horn section. As Combs' composition started coming together, everything coalesced and all of the pieces fit.
Eventually, Jacob Fred entered the Church Studios this past winter with Bernstein and Apfelbaum as well as sax player Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones), saxophonist Mark Southerland (Snuff Jazz) and trombonist Matt Leland (an original member of JFJO) to record the new material. The ensemble recorded Race Riot Suite with Costa Stasinapoulos at the helm as producer and Chad Copelin engineering. Combs said Stasinopoulos and Copelin were crucial to the overall success of project.
"I met with Costa for eight months before we ever entered the studio making lists, theme mapping, storyboarding and doing character development," he said. "That's one of Costa's superpowers: he's one of the few people who can create and complete something this big. In the long term, he sees the big picture, but he can also work through all of the minutia to get there and not lose track of the vision."
That became essential for the Race Riot Suite as Combs created a narrative that tells a story from start to finish and contains many recurring themes, events and characters. Beginning in the Boomtown era of the early 1920s the tale begins as the Greenwood District was one of the most powerful and affluent black communities in the country. The story then expresses the riot itself and the deliberate cover up instigated by the KKK, which had infiltrated local government, and the newspapers and media.
When going back through old documents, much has disappeared, including many pictures that accompanied the original stories in local newspapers, never to be recovered.
"There was a deliberate cover up and the whole thing was real estate motivated," Combs said. "Although a lot is missing, all of the pieces just fit for me. Tulsa has always been a big oil town and the oil companies have never been the most upstanding."
Finally, the story follows through to modern day, with the final movement touching on our current generation and how the events still shape our city culturally and are often kept secret or swept under the rug.
"Sometimes it just feels like part of our city is white-washed," Combs said.
Perhaps most intriguing for many will be how a story can be told so adeptly without lyrics or a singer. In a generation often defaults to pop paradigms, expressing a story this broad and important via music alone is a big undertaking.
When asking Combs how challenging it was to tell the story in this manner, he said "this is definitely the most natural thing for me to do, in a kind of weird way."
Of course, many of Combs' jazz influences come out in the music, from Charles Mingus to Duke Ellington to Lightning Bolt, but music from every genre finds its way into the suite. Combs acknowledges his pop influences in the strong melodic statements of the piece, yet there are still free spaces for improvisation and avant-garde jazz. He even shared that "There are definitely Led Zeppelin moments," as all of his influences come out in the composition.
Most crucial to the suite, however, was being able to accurately express both the story itself and the emotions that lie within. Even with a dream team of musicians that can be difficult. Combs had not only explained the concept of the piece to the ensemble, but also forwarded each one a copy of the National Park Service survey, which is considered by many to be one of the best sources in information on the subject.
"Everyone was all read up and knew the importance of the story and staying true to the story," Combs said.
To that extent, he sensed that there was an overriding sense of meaning to the sessions to the point that even on good takes, many times the group would know "we just aren't there yet" and itself into an emotional state to express things properly.
"Everyone definitely put their entire selves into this," Combs stated. "We were always aware of where we were in the story and what we were deliberately trying to convey. Even on the solos, we were trying to fit the story and thinking about how it translated as a whole."
As important as the guest artists were, the principle players in JFJO were essential to the recordings. Josh Raymer's drum part ebbs, flows and reacts with the music. Jeff Harshbarger's double bass anchors the emotions and Brian Haas plays upright piano throughout, often as the voice of the composition.
"Brain Haas is doing things on piano that no one else can do," Combs stated. "There are a lot of good players out there, but their execution is nowhere near as real or heartfelt as what he did here."
The entire story translates incredibly fluently, opening with and introduction during the boomtown era of Black Wall Street, then sweeping through the dynamic and emotional statements of "The Burning," which translates the riot itself and eventually sweeping through the emotional reactions that come across in "Grandfather's Gun," which premiered online via Soundcloud.com last week.
Although the full album is not due to be released until Aug. 31, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey will premier the Race Riot Suite in its entirety this Friday night, May 20 with two performances at Williams Theater. This is one of the rare occasions that all of the studio musicians will be assembled together in one location, making it all the more special. Tickets are only $20 each for either the 8p or 10pm performance or tickets for both shows can be purchased for $35.
Although much of the composition is fully mapped out, Combs assured me that between the open sections and the assembling of so many world class musicians, there will be much room for improvisation and no two performances will fully mirror each other. Not only is room for individual improvisation, but the suite contains four interludes or "prayers" that each become group statements as the compositions opens up to flow freely.
With that in mind, the two performances can play to different audiences, but true fans will want to stay for both shows to fully absorb the weight of the story and to see how it continues to develop and evolve in a live venue to continue to makes Jacob Fred's boldest statement to date.
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