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Show Review: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey in NYC 11/02/05

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The Joy Of Cooking – Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey Record Release Party @ Tonic in NYC 11/02/05
w/The Lafayette Gilchrist Trio

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has somehow managed to, for better or worse, elude whatever slightly mainstream scene avant-garde/experimental funk jazz groups sometimes enjoy. Groups like Medeski, Martin & Wood and The Bad Plus come immediately to mind when I see JFJO perform live and I can’t help but compare them. Having recently seen MMW play and long believed them to be the best group improvisers in the “avant-funk” hippie jazz scene, I believe it is now fair to say that JFJO is giving those boys a run for their money.

JFJO recently released their new album, “The Sameness of Difference,” one of their finest and most refined offerings to date, and decided to celebrate this event with 2 inspired shows at my favorite experimental music venue, Tonic in downtown New York.

This Tulsa-bred jazz trio seems to have a second home in NYC having recorded at least 2 live albums there and making Tonic and The Knitting Factory popular stops on their tours, and rightfully so. Perhaps the hole-in-the-wall bohemian hang out environment that is created at Tonic is conducive to their style of in-the-moment improvising and exploration, but then again maybe they just like having to walk through the audience in order to leave the almost ground level stage. Either way, a band like Jacob Fred was made to play at a place like Tonic and this is why I was so eagerly anticipating this record release party.

As their guest and supporting act for the first night of the two night stand, JFJO had new label mate Lafayette Gilchrist and his trio warm up the sparse crowd. Lafayette is an extremely talented piano player and completely owned the stage while he was on. With his little hat and goatee one couldn’t help but be reminded of Thelonious Monk, and it wasn’t just his look that mirrored his performance. He played with a lot of obvious talent and a whole lot of feeling, but he was always right on the mark.

If there’s anything that told me about the band it was that his bass player was sporting sandals in the middle of one of the coldest nights of the season – that indicates either you’re really cool or really crazy. Both qualities are something to look for in a bass player, so you can’t really go wrong there.

After a bit of a prolonged set due to some unclarified difficulty, The Lafayette Gilchrist Trio left the stage to warm applause and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey geared up for what was, as always, a fantastic set. I hadn’t yet heard the new material so I was thirsty for some live work-outs of classic tunes and a debut of the new stuff.

I was not let down at all. JFJO was on top of their game at this show and their material, old and especially new, was inspiring and beautiful. If my notes are in any way accurate (which I am not counting on at all), they opened the show with a jaw-dropping cover of the Flaming Lips song, “The Spark That Bled,” displaying a great quality this band shares with a certain other more embraced jazz trio (The Bad Plus), and that is a flare for turning pop songs into interesting jazz explorations.

Also in their set were the covers of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and most curious of all, Bjork’s gem “Isobel,” Seeing the band perform “Isobel” live was a revelation for me. As a die hard Bjork fan I was listening for every note from the original song and while they interpreted Bjork’s masterpiece accurately and lovingly, they also gave it new life. Reed Mathis, JFJO’s brilliant bass/cello wizard, plays his instrument like he’s telling secrets, a style fitting for both Bjork’s mysterious song and for his emotional and heart-wrenching solos. He brings out everything he can from his strings and from time to time lets out a passionate moan with each joyful note, channeling emotion like Keith Jarrett – only more youthful and less distracting.

It is always a treat to this band cover a song live, especially a pop song, because the band adapts to a more lyrical form of improvising within a revered structure. The ability to take an already great song and interpret it in a unique way which gives you the blessing of seeing the work in a different light is truly a gift and will hopefully be something this band becomes recognized for, as it is a clear advantage over the sometimes schticky, sometimes novelty covers of The Bad Plus.

Aside from their talent at covering songs, JFJO is known for their impressive and energetic live shows. The guys are improvisers at heart, with a love for the avant-garde and the shared moment. They are three of the most musically telepathic people I’ve ever had the joy of watching perform. When they get on stage together, boy can they cook! And when they cook it’s always pipin’ hot and very tasty.

When piano player Brian Haas exclaimed, “O.K., let’s make some shit up” in the middle of the show, both my ears and my nether regions began to tingle. Their Tonic improvisation was top notch and never lost its acceleration. It began with some Herbie Hancock-esque electric piano (an instrument they are best known for but was seldom used in this show due to the dominance of the acoustic on the new album) and followed itself with the skilled technique of drummer Jason Smart into a nice crescendo, only to end after a surf style excursion. Needless to say, the audience was pleased.

But it’s not just in straight-up off the cuff “made up shit” that gives this band a cult following on the jam band scene and a respected spot in jazz critic circles alike, it is also their all around ideology behind what jazz is all about. The band is called “Jazz Odyssey” for a reason, and as the group gets older, the Odyssey gets more interesting. From my experience, they have never sounded better.

Their songs are tight on the record but mind-expanding at the live show and their improvising on each tune is honed with every year. Highlights of the set list include a majority of new material like the aforementioned list of brilliant covers, “Davey’s Purple Powerline,” “Haliburton Breakdown,” and “The Maestro,” where Brian Haas really puts a hurtin’ on his piano.

As always, each player shines brilliantly for the live crowd and the raw talent and inspiration of the band becomes an unstoppable force when they get in the swing of it. The classically trained Brian Haas is a mad genius on piano and really tears open jazz and leaves it inside out as his loyal fans continue to dance to his output of both funky rhythms and spacey free noise exploration.

Jason Smart is just as skilled at reading his soloist band-mates as they are each other, which in many ways is more important because he has to both keep up with them and lead them. And as I said, Reed Mathis is just out of this world. Like with Haas’s generally acoustic playing due to the content of the new album, Mathis went with the electric bass for most of the show, excluding the effects-laden cello that they’re known for all together and reaching only a few (but cherished) times for his acoustic bass guitar. For me, this is a welcome change. I love the cello, don’t get me wrong, but it was nice to see the band as a more conventional jazz trio than they usually are.

Towards the end of the show Mark Sutherland joined the band on sax for some swinging tunes and excellent grooving jams and solos. They ended their stellar show with what sounded like a Thelonious Monk tune, perhaps the JFJO original “Thelonious Monk Is My Grandmother” but unfortunately I’m not entirely clear on this. On stage with them was Mark on sax and Lafayette Gilchrist on acoustic piano while Haas manned the keyboards. It was a grand display of talent and funkiness.

It saddens me to think that Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey doesn’t get the same amount of respect and recognition as their peers. Perhaps if they were signed to Blue Note they would be taken slightly more seriously than they seem to be. While The Bad Plus packs in the music lovers at week-long stays at The Village Vanguard, JFJO barely fill a small square room, and yet the musical prowess and undeniable mastery of music, body and soul, that JFJO has puts them in league, if not high above many of their more “successful” contemporaries.

Check out their new album and try to catch them on tour whenever possible. Here are the upcoming tour dates:
November 10 / Castaways / Ithaca, NY
November 11 / Main Pub / Manchester, CT
November 12 / The Stone Church / Newmarket, NH
November 13 / Higher Ground / Burlington, VT
November 14 / Hard Rock Cafe / Montreal, Canada
November 15 / Pepper Jacks / Hamilton, Ontario
November 17 / Onopa Pub / Milwaukee, WI
November 18 / Univ. of Wisconsin Rathskeller / Madison, WI
November 19 / Subterranean / Chicago, IL
November 27 / Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame / Tulsa, OK
November 28 / George’s / Fayetteville, AR
November 29 / The Deli / Norman, OK
November 30 / Gypsy Tea Room / Dallas, TX
December 1 / The Warehouse / Houston, TX
December 2 / Stubbs / Austin, TX
December 3 / Haileys /
Denton, TX

and you can check out Lafayette Gilchrist here.

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About Jordan Clifford

  • Eric Olsen

    very nice job Jordan, you gave a lot of info and demonstrated a good feel for the jazzy end of the jam band spectrum – thanks!

    It’s fascinating how the jam band vibe has grown to encompass such a wide range of musical styles, which have little in common but reverence for THE Groove

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    This is an Blogcritics editors’ pick of the week. Click HERE to find out why.

    Also, NEW this week, we are requesting the honor of your very own “best of the week that was” pick for showing an interest and a dedication in your own writing, and as a second thank you for writing well. I will be e-mailing you separately on this as well, but for a little more info read the top of the link above.

    Cheers. – Temple, BC editor / Special Projects Director

  • http://www.thefreedomclub.blogspot.com Jordan

    Hey thanks Temple. Always like positive feedback, even if its only ever from you and Eric. :)

  • pjustus

    This was a very nice review, however I would like to note that Reed has never been known for his cello playing, although he is as revelatory on that instrument as he is on Fender bass guitar. His trademark octavized sound has always come from his bass guitars, although prior to 2000, he never used effects. He has also occasionally utilized effects on an acoustic upright.