Just as there’s no “I” in team, there’s no Jacob Fred in the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. The avant-garde jazz group has gone through different personnel iterations during its nearly 20 years of existence, but Jacob Fred has never been a member. In fact, he does not exist.
A similar kind of subversion is reflected in the group’s current quintet lineup, which features a combination of instruments both standard and unusual to jazz: lap steel, upright bass, drums, homemade horns, and piano.
JFJO has “made a name for itself” in other ways as well — the group has recorded 21 albums and garnered media notice, including profiles in DownBeat and reviews in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, for several outside-the-box musical projects. Among these is The Race Riot Suite, a full-length composition that documents the devastating racially motivated assault on Tulsa’s wealthy African American community in 1921.
“Our lap steel guitarist [Chris Combs] is a historian, and he felt compelled to write this piece,” said pianist Brian Haas, who moved to Santa Fe last year. “I grew up in that area and didn’t learn about it until I was 25. Every time we play it, it’s intense. It affects the audience in odd ways.” He said the suite has been a dividing point in the group’s hometown, being a racially charged piece of music played by an all-white jazz band. It has captured international attention as well. The work premiered in 2011, and it continues to be in demand at jazz festivals worldwide. In fact, the afternoon Haas spoke with Pasatiempo, he was scheduled to fly to Europe with JFJO to perform it at festivals in Amsterdam and Austria.
While Haas said he loves the depth of the work and how it comes across differently in every performance, he added that he’s ready to start working on the group’s 22nd album, which has a tentative recording date of January 2014. JFJO also plans on releasing another album of reworked material from previous recordings that year — creating a “best of” compilation. Closer to Haas’ heart at the present moment, however, is a project of his own for piano and drums, entitled Frames.
That album, which Haas recently recorded and will release in October, is a conceptually interesting set of songs. It encompasses 12 compositions, starting in the key of C and moving up chromatically through the remaining 11 keys. Haas said it works as a cycle that follows the human trajectory of birth, life, and death. But it succeeds in a purely musical way, outside of experimental novelty. From one moment to the next, the pieces capitalize on both the eeriness of dissonant sparsity and the freneticism of precise polyrhythms.
“It’s very much a drum feature in a way. A lot of times I play the role of the drummer as we go through the progression of the pieces. I’m the one who reins it in and holds it down and plays a competitive rhythm, which is interesting for me because I’ve always set myself up to be the main improviser.”
Much of Haas’ willingness to compose the piece with a drum focus resulted from landing Matt Chamberlain for the gig. Chamberlain is one of today’s leading studio drummers, having appeared on more than 200 albums and worked with Brad Mehldau, David Bowie, and Elton John, among many others. The two discussed doing a project together in 2000, after Chamberlain asked Haas to sit in with his band at a show that JFJO was opening. Chamberlain responded enthusiastically to the performance and suggested they record together in the future, but it took 13 years for their schedules to align. During the intervening years, Haas composed various material for a piano-and-drums album and even received the go-ahead from his label. But, he said, when he finally confirmed Chamberlain for a studio date, “I ditched every bit of it and wrote the whole thing from beginning to end with him in mind.”
He did so in a mere three and a half weeks. Haas approached the composition process as a series of exercises, which relieved him of some of the perfectionist impulses that can slow down his creative process. What resulted was a series of “skeletons.” He and Chamberlain fleshed these out in the studio over the course of only two days. “It would take him one, maybe two takes. By the third he would just crush it,” Haas said, attributing Chamberlain’s speed to his comfort and versatility within a studio environment. “He used the studio like an instrument — the whole studio like a huge drum kit.”
To support Frames, Haas is scheduling a tour that already includes more than 25 dates, starting Thursday, Sept. 12, at Santa Fe’s Gig Performance Space (1808-H Second St., www.gigsantafe.com). The show, which features local drummer Dave Wayne, begins at 8 p.m.; it’s $15 at the door. Chamberlain’s schedule does not permit him to join the tour, but Haas is compensating by bringing in a number of different drummers from each region he passes through. In fact, he said that within the drum community, the project already “seems to be gener- ating it’s own set of interest,” probably because he made the project with (and for) Chamberlain.
“That’s one of my favorite parts — I get to play it with so many different drummers. And even playing it with two drummers has been so different.” Haas is excited to do the Gig performance with Wayne and also hinted that later in the fall he hopes to return with Scott Amendola, a Grammy-nominated player who is a well-respected staple of the Bay Area jazz scene.
And after that? Unsurprisingly for a touring musician who spends more than 250 days on the road in a given year (“Most of the last 20 years I’ve lived just like Chris Farley: in a van down by the river,” Hass said), he was already thinking about the next tour. He said he had an eye on Europe, perhaps because he was flying there that day, but this next time in support of Frames and with Chamberlain himself behind the drums. ◀