Reinvention is coded into the DNA of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. More than any one song, album, or lineup, their legacy is an unyielding commitment to their muse and to the moment. “Sometimes our search leads to some uncomfortable conversations,” says founding member and keyboardist Brian Haas. “But at the end of the day, this is not a social experience: We’re here for the music. When the music stops, so do we…”
How else does one explain the past year’s full-force shift from a five-horn lineup steeped in classic jazz vocabulary to the endlessly resourceful, beat-driven, and richly harmolodic trio of Haas, Chris Combs (guitar, lap steel), and Josh Raymer (drums) that now calls itself the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey? The inspiration for the current edition, which makes its studio debut with the dynamic, multi-layer Worker – available October 14, 2014 via Royal Potato Family – lies somewhere between the past and the future.
“Much of the first large-level success the band saw was as a trio,” says Combs, a member since 2008. “And for the 20th anniversary of the band, we worked up a set of older material to celebrate that anniversary – a lot of which was from that trio era…”
“Those first trio rehearsals and gigs were a trip,” says Raymer, who came aboard in 2007, “because we were playing a lot of the music that Combs and I have loved since we were kids.” The result of that revisiting became the now sold-out, vinyl-only release Millions: Live in Denver – and a new direction forward.
“Combs and Raymer started listening to Jacob Fred when they were in middle school,” Haas explains, fondly. “To them, it’s a language they grew up with and they want to push forward. When they joined, I was able to share ownership of that language. It’s as much theirs as mine.”
This trio first convened in the aftermath of The Race Riot Suite, an acclaimed long-form work that launched a nine-man version of the band up the jazz charts and into festivals, concert halls, and clubs around the world. “The Race Riot Suite was a super important piece for us in many ways,” Haas reflects. “But it also put the last nail in the coffin as far as pretending we were a jazz band – and I mean that in a good way.”
“When did those first few shows with the new trio lineup, the audience’s response was so strong,” Combs recalls. “We felt like we accidentally found what the next step was…”
Haas and Combs began composing with the trio in mind. “First, we codified our new concept,” Haas says. “With the first batch of compositions, we figured out what we wanted to say. Then we wrote stuff to help us say it. It’s influenced by jazz, but it’s not jazz.”
The shorter, song-like material on Worker, their 26th album, adds the cut-and-paste techniques of visionary hip-hop and indie rock rhythmic deconstruction-ism to the band’s growing list of influences. The trio boldly re-imagines itself as a series of interlocking engines – generating friction, tension, and release through focused motivic development. “We’re listening to all this amazing stuff from other genres,” Haas explains, “and we had to ask: They’re doing it with computers – are we good enough to do it with our instruments?”
While intoxicatingly intricate, Worker was largely recorded live in the studio over two days, with minimal overdubs. “All the parts, all the harmonies, we’re doing that live,” Haas explains. “Any loops you hear are executed in real time.” The increased sonic responsibilities push each member to their limits with Haas generating bass tones on a Moog synthesizer with his left hand while using his right to produce melodies, loops, and textures. Meanwhile, Combs presides over a guitar, lap steel, and two synthesizers.
Evocative opener “New Bird” unfolds carefully, with a slowly percolating beat underpinning careful guitar and synthesizer play to nearly cinematic effect. Surprisingly, the powerful and fully-formed track was the very first to be cut at the sessions – the band unaware that tape was rolling. “Betamax” weds a tensely escalating harmonic progression to a churning backbeat that further ratchets tension by dropping into stop-time passages as the song’s various sections are introduced. The playfully baiting “Hey Hey NSA” opens with a series of overlapping loops triggered by Combs and Haas in real time before the keyboard emerges with an insidiously hooky, off-kilter melody. Throughout Worker, the boundary between composition and spontaneity is nearly invisible, with improvisations spiraling organically into and out from source material.
At the center of each performance is Raymer. “I feel that my role is to bring the music to life,” Raymer explains. “To bring that human feel to what would be loops or programmed beats.”
That overarching sense of humanity, combined with a relentless search for new musical landscapes, is at the core of Jacob Fred’s evolution – which now spans twenty years, sixteen members, and innumerable gigs. “We’re not just doing something different for the sake of being different,” Combs explains. “Being creative is what turns us on and propels us.”
“I love changing; pushing my concept of what good music should be and pushing our fans’ concept of what good music should be,” Haas concludes. “I don’t want to make jazz or anything else — I just want to make great music.”