The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is a band that's clearly relished keeping people guessingdown to the fictional person in the band nameand while jazz has always been the starting point for their music, it's anyone's guess where the band would take it from one album to the next. We last visited JFJO more than three years ago when Lil Tae Rides Again was the fresh new dish, and there's been two albums since then. The third one just went on sale Tuesday, August 30, and from the sounds of The Race Riot Suite, I'm wondering if I'm even listening to the same band.
Of course, I am; if Race sounded too much like Lil Tae, that might be more cause for concern, for it's not the JFJO way to stand still. Not even personnel wise: founding bassist Reed Mathis left the group in 2009 and was eventually replaced by Jeff Harshbarger on acoustic bass and Chris Combs on lap steel guitar. Josh Waymer, who arrived just in time for Lil Tae, remains behind the drum kit and the lone remaining original member Brian Haas plays keyboards.
So what's the theme this time around? Something very local to the band: the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. This was a conflict between whites and blacks in Tulsa over a sixteen hour period that resulted in hundreds, mostly African Americans, dead, 35 city blocks destroyed and thousands detained and left homeless. It left the once prosperous African American Tulsa community of Greenwood in shambles. Little is known about this especially dark episode of the Jim Crow era, due to successful attempts to erase the record of the event for several generations. But eventually, people in Tulsa become of aware of it. Chris Combs was one of those people and he was inspired to compose an entire suite of music about the Greenwood riot, and the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, with guest horn players, brought his vision to life.
JFJO is a fusion band, but as indicated earlier, it's not necessarily rock-jazz fusion. The Race Riot Suite evokes pre-swing jazz as a foundation, but doesn't stick slavishly to that style. Occasionally, there's modern rhythms and clearly, Combs' lap pedal steel guitar wasn't an instrument around at the time of riot. Yet, it fits in quite well amongst the baroque music. The feel of this music remains 20-ish, which is important in making a connection to the events surrounding the riot, since there's no lyrics to do that.
Which brings us to a point that this album brings home ... actually two points: 1. there's not that big of a gulf between 20s jazz and avant-garde jazz, and 2. making an themed record, even an instrumental one such as this one, makes for a more coherent and focused effort. On the first point, I'm thinking of Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra band's whack vintage jazz nugget We Are MTO from 2008, which so brilliantly demonstrated how you can celebrate eighty year old music and remain forward-thinking and imaginative. JFJO does that, too. As to the second, it isn't always necessary to be so tightly focused, but it's arguably harder to achieve that with a record without lyrics and without many overly familiar constructions at all. The Odyssey did it, and did it without leaving any rough edges.
Oh yeah, speaking of Bernstein, he plays trumpet and slide trumpet as one of the guest horn players who make up the expanded version of the JFJO for this record. As is former JFJO member Matt Leland (trombone), Peter Apfelbaum (tenor and baritone saxophones), Jeff Coffin (tenor sax) and Mark Southerland (tenor saxophone). For this record, the O" in JFJO stands for orchestra" as much as it does odyssey." Not just orchestra in the jazz sense, either. The first half of the album was written as we were preparing for 'Ludwig,'" explains Combs. Ludwig" was a project of the band interpreting two of Beethoven's symphonies. Consequently, the emphasis is put heavier on arrangements than on improvisation.
That's not to say the boys don't cut loose, Combs' arrangements leaves room to do that but tactfully to amplify moods. The upbeat party tune, Roaring 20s style, Black Wall Street," find Combs gettin' down, along with Bernstein amongst a madly swinging consortium of reed and brass. Even Harshbarger gets to solo on this one. The song transitions into the ostentatious The Burning" without skipping a beat, accurately reflecting the shift in mood from prosperity to calamity to the despair of Mt. Zion." Grandfather's Gun" (live video below) even manages to merge a rock strut interrupted by a free jazz interlude. Cover Up" works itself up into a frenzy, perhaps to illustrate the effort that went to erasing this shameful catastrophe from memory.
Howard Wiley received a great deal of acclaim for The Angola Project, which shone a light on America's legacy of racial suppression in an area that even in the present day has received scant attention. It was simultaneously a celebration of the rich music inspired by such dire circumstances. Chris Combs' history lesson into another dark, overlooked chapter in the struggle for equality likewise merits commendation and reflection for such a thoughtful and poetic presentation. It's a project that goes to show that The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is not one of the more creative and interesting jazz combos in spite of being out of Tulsa, Oklahoma instead of, say, New York. They are a creative and interesting jazz combo precisely because they are from Tulsa, Oklahoma.