Reed Mathis: Vernal Gratitude
By: Dennis Cook
Reed Mathis is somewhat surprised when I call him an instigator. Yet, there is a discernible musical prod at the core of his playing and personality. Mathis is a once-or-twice in a generation player, someone who will forever change the way his instrument is viewed henceforth. Those sort of pronouncements make him squirm in person, but put him on a stage or in a studio with almost anyone and chances are they'll play their very best and stray, at least a bit, outside of their comfort zone, hooked into forgetting what they know for the chance to discover what's out there.
Are you saying I throw people off their game?" says Mathis with his easy, earthy laugh. Playful" is one of the first adjectives that springs to mind with this hyper-gifted bassist who's made his mark with a 15-year stint with the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and in recent years finding his rock voice in Tea Leaf Green. I've never tried to spark people into places they wouldn't normally go. I just think I'm a weirdo, and what comes naturally to me might be possibly jarring to other people. The stuff I hear [in my head], I just use whatever tools I can to try and make it come out in the physical world. But, it's not always what people expect."
Something many fans didn't expect was Mathis' abrupt departure from JFJO this past January. The group's website announced a new lineup with Chris Combs (lap steel) and Matt Hayes (bass) joining co-founding keyboardist Brian Haas and drummer Josh Raymer and offering well wishes to Mathis, who they described as exploring other musical endeavors." Mathis had been doing double duty in JFJO and TLG for about a full year, and the strain of things proved too much for all parties where something had to give. For many JFJO lovers, it's hard to conceive of the group without Mathis' wailing bass vocalizations and mad genius spirit - he is Robert Fripp smart but wonderfully tempered by a Bill Frisell heart. 2009 has seen Jacob Fred thriving in their new configuration, and Mathis continuing apace with Tea Leaf as well as collaborating with Marco Benevento and others, including some groundbreaking personal experiments with symphonic music still simmering in the lab. But, no one is feeling his absence from JFJO more than Mathis himself.
Jacob Fred is so beautiful. It's really one of the greatest bands in the history of music, if you ask me," Mathis offers sincerely and then nervously chuckles to hide his embarrassment over making such a claim about a band he co-founded and helped shaped for more than a decade. So, finally asking the question hanging in the room, how does it feel to not be part of it now?
It's intense. It was a hard decision for sure, definitely bittersweet. I love those guys, and I love that music. The decision to move on has a lot of variables but it kind of comes down to change and just rolling the dice. That's one of things I've always loved about Jacob Fred, the constant change and the gamble of it all. And this move feels very much in that tradition," explains Mathis. Part of my decision was that for the first time in 15 years Jacob Fred is in a position to play without me. Jacob Fred's always been sort of a collective - what have there been over the years, 15 or 16 members? - this loose, Oklahoma-centric organic thing. And mainly because last year I was playing in both bands, they got themselves to a point where they could play without me."
Chris Combs and Matt Hayes are the sort of two-headed monster filling my slot [laughs]. Chris is sort of the soprano role, what I was doing with the whammy pedal and guitar, and what I was doing with the bass is now Matt," says Mathis. Those guys are some of my best friends; I've known them and been making music with them for years. I've sat down one-on-one with them and gone through the music many times, so I feel super confident they know the dialect and know the drill and know the parts and know when to throw the parts out the window [laughs]. I have complete confidence that they're in the position to make music of equal caliber, if not greater, without me there. Without that I wouldn't have been able to make this change. Jacob Fred is too beautiful a thing to not happen."
Brian and I have been playing together for so long that it's hard to know who's who really. That's part of what's great about it but it's also part of this opportunity to figure who's who, to find out how much of me is me and how much is us," continues Mathis. In the '90s we'd write songs that featured ourselves - I would write a song that I soloed over and he'd write a song that he soloed over - and then somehow that shifted where his songs had me in the foreground and my songs had him in the foreground. It's really an amazing partnership, and to be honest, I really hope it's not done. I really hope there's more Jacob Fred music in my future. That's my home dialect, but that'll be up to those guys whether they want me on-board in the future."
There's a lot of ways I look at [being in Tea Leaf Green]. One way is Jacob Fred's journey - just for me personally - is about internal music, the music of that realm. Learning to play Jacob Fred music for me is about learning to play the things that are mine and mine only, just pure inner drip," observes Mathis. But, over the past few years I've gotten this urge to learn about the flipside - the music we all have in common, public music. For better or worse, you have to follow your muse, follow your curiosity. For me, music has always been about adventure and finding new things. The easiest way I can sum up the difference between the two bands is Jacob Fred is kind of about making a self-portrait, and when I'm onstage with Tea Leaf Green I kinda feel like I'm making the audience's portrait. It's a real different thing and it requires different skills, and it's something I've been craving for a while."
Mathis isn't kidding about this craving. He's long daydreamed about playing in a classic rock setting where he could grow to understand the grooves and details of bass in that realm, as well as explore the role of supporting a singer, much the same way a gifted jazz pianist learns tons being a vocal accompanist. Plus, there's the hovering fantasy any red-blooded American boy experiences, where they're on a big stage, foot up on an amp, while the kiddies twist 'n' shout at their command. Grand Funk Railroad aren't the only ones - as testified to by the monster sales of certain video game systems involving guitars and heroes - in love with all the trappings and mystique of being part of a rock band.
Hell yeah! Jazz became rock 'n' roll sometime in late '40s, early '50s. There was this split and the energy that had been jazz for several decades, and well, half of that energy continued and became Coltrane and the other half became Chuck Berry and eventually The Beatles. But, they both came from the same music. Both little branches came from the same trunk. So, I've been feeling like exploring the other trunk," chuckles Mathis, amused at his entendre-rich observation. What we call rock 'n' roll has its root in bebop jazz. From that angle, there's as much of the jazz tradition in what a band like Tea Leaf Green does as there is in what a band like Jacob Fred does. It's just a polarity switch."
[In TLG] we have no idea of what's going to happen each night. There's a huge amount of improvising and surprise involved. And with Josh Clark [guitar] every single thing that guy plays is unexpected to me! I'm honestly and consistently surprised by him. He just goes for it with very little internal debate over what to do. He just does it and that's what improvising is," comments Mathis, who also digs the very symbiotic relationship Tea Leaf shares with their devoted audience. Jacob Fred is a bit more of a voyeuristic experience [laughs]. With the Fred it's like watching a lion track, kill and eat an antelope. It's just nature, raw nature. It's absolutely glorious but a very different thing than a conversation, which is bit more what a Tea Leaf Green concert feels like. There's a little more awareness of the other half of the equation. You know, the lion is going to kill and eat the antelope regardless of anyone watching or not. Know what I mean?"
Four Strings And The Truth
There's a physicality to Mathis' playing that makes the listener acutely aware of the tangible aspect of sound waves. More bluntly, the animated way Mathis manhandles his instrument gets the music into the fiber of you. While there's mountains of talent and technique behind his style - comparisons, and not a few, have been made to Jimi Hendrix and Jaco Pastorius - Mathis maintains something intrinsically messy and mirthful, call it giggling grit, which keeps even his most highbrow inclinations a little roughed up.
The more it effects my body, the less I'm in my body. My goal is to not be controlling myself, and the most obvious manifestation of that is happening physically. But I sometimes lapse and try to control myself," he snickers. There's two ways I approach stuff. One thing is to listen to what's already going on and try and support it, to not even really 'be' there - invisible bass! Then, the other approach is to listen and see what might be missing and try to do that. Like many geniuses, Jaco elevated the instrument to the highest height and simultaneously kind of ruined it. A lot of virtuosos and innovators did that. It's kind of part of it. It's like virginity - once that thing is broke it's broke, and then the randomness of organic life takes over."
As Skerik is fond of reminding me, bass is a role not an instrument. It's a position on a team," continues Mathis. I spent a good many years figuring out how the actual instrument works, and then I sort of reached some sort of plateau with that. Then, the question became, 'What am I going to do?' I know how to do stuff but then what do I do?" says Mathis. One of the things that was such an inestimable blessing to me in Jacob Fred is that in that group I had the platform to explore everything the bass can do that isn't bass. There's a lot of music I hear internally that suggests I picked the wrong instrument [laughs]. Trying to get that music out on the bass is hard because it's not bass music. But, it's also part of the beauty, part of a timeless Icarus thing."
One topic I've gone over many times with the Jacob Fred boys in the past seven years since I first got to know them is what is the IT" of JFJO? What lies at the core? What are the operating principles behind their music? For sure, it's a kōan but there's value in simply asking the question, if only to talk to the wind and see what it has caught. So, one of the first observations I made to JFJO after hearing their latest album, the utterly stunning and free for download Winterwood was how much it felt like the answer to the question. If one wanted a wholly listenable encapsulation of their love for tradition AND absolute disrespect for orthodoxy and knack for rejuvenating rebellion then here it is.
I wanted to make a record that summed the thing up. I felt like looking at our catalog of 15 years that the only way to find out who the band was meant putting on all the records simultaneously and push play [laughs]. None of the albums really got all of it in there, not even close. So, up front, Brian and Josh kind of gave me the reins, god bless 'em, and said, 'You can produce this one. Let us help you make the record you want to make.' That was a real blessing right out of the gate," says Mathis. One of my favorite things about Brian's playing is his solo piano stuff. He has a whole set of chops that just relate to solo piano playing, where you really hear the classical music upbringing, and he just plays way different without drums and bass raging. There's just a whole side to Haas that's reserved for when he's alone, and I wanted that on the record. There's thirteen songs, and with ten of the songs the first thing we tracked was solo piano."
We set up a click track and Brian asked me to stand at the foot of the piano and conduct him. Then, he'd play the piano alone like we were making a solo record. Once we got a performance of the song as solo piano that we dug he would move to the Rhodes, I'd get on the bass and Josh would get on drums and we would accompany the solo piano track and try to match it as close as possible. The solo piano performance became the conductor. So, the band would then be articulating the pace and rhythms of Brian's solo piano. The original solo piano didn't always stay in the foreground but everything in the mix is an extension of it."
The other approach to tracking we took is exemplified by 'Song of the Vipers,' where we did a dozen different versions and then I made the different versions converse with one another," continues Mathis. On songs like 'Vipers' or 'Oklahoma Stomp,' the lead voice is shifting between piano, Rhodes, guitar and stuff. We actually cut whole versions featuring the grand piano, whole versions featuring the Rhodes, whole versions with guitar, and then I took all the best bits and made them play together. So, when you hear eight bars of slamming Rhodes and then the piano comes in you're actually hearing different versions of the song."
Listening to the [earlier] records it just doesn't say enough with just the one side of the band. The band is just too multifaceted. I wanted to get all the sides of us into these songs," says Mathis. Three of the songs are like this - 'Vipers,' 'Oklahoma Stomp' and 'Old Love New Love' - where we tracked live and then cut them up to represent all the different versions. The rest of record we did conductor takes and then layered."
Besides offering some of JFJO's strongest compositions ever, Winterwood also tackles some iconic covers - Jerry Garcia's Crazy Fingers," Louis Armstrong's Song of the Vipers" and Duke Ellington's Oklahoma Stomp." As much as their own highly individual writing, their choice of other's material speaks positive volumes about both their taste and fearlessness. This assortment on Winterwood is in keeping with their insistence on standing shoulder to shoulder with the best, often most challenging music that's ever been made in any field. And as the years progress, they look more and more comfortable in the big shoes they've tried to fill since their inception.
I don't know hardly anybody that loves jazz that's even heard 'Oklahoma Stomp' or 'Song of the Vipers," giggles Mathis. 'Crazy Fingers' we pretty much just played, but the other two I pretty much recomposed for Jacob Fred."
One thing for certain comes out of listening to Winterwood and that's how Mathis is really coming into his own as a producer. His fine ear, instinct, overall vision, knack for pulling the right performances from the musicians and pure studio technical savvy are apparent on this album. While he's dabbled for ages, this set reveals a cut-and-splice maestro in the making.
The big leap for me with Winterwood over other records is I got a computer. In the past I was dependent on somebody else who owned a computer, so the amount of time I could work on things was dependent on what their schedule allowed. So, sometimes that was two days, sometimes it was a month. With Lil Tae Rides Again I got to go a little deeper, but for Winterwood I had my own laptop, and that was cool!" says Mathis, who's been self-educating with Beatles' studio diaries and the like for years.
So, Reed, what flips your switch production-wise?
As far as currently active shit, the big things for me are both Oklahoma bands. Dorian Small is one of the best producers I've ever heard, though I might be one of the only people who actually has heard him! He's literally a genius and a prodigy. I've learned a lot from his records. And the other is The Flaming Lips, who've been on a pretty sharp trajectory for the past few years, especially after The Soft Bulletin, where they crossed over into heaven land in terms of production. I just love their stuff so much! So, other than The Beatles, my big production goals for Winterwood were make it sound like Dorian Small and The Flaming Lips. And Sgt. Pepper's!" enthuses Mathis. I can honestly say that the week we spent at Winterwood Studios making this record was probably the happiest, most fun week in the history of Jacob Fred. It was just three guys really in love with each other and thirteen songs."
What follows are Reed Mathis' observations on each of the tracks on Winterwood, where he offers insights into the compositions, production choices and his own larger history with JFJO.
1. Dove's Army of Love
Dove was the founding guitarist in Jacob Fred, and he left in 2000. He's always been one of my favorite people in the world, just an unreal level of optimism and positivity and a sort of kill-em-with-kindness approach to things. Really just a brilliant guitarist and human. Even though we don't keep in touch very much he's still an icon in my psyche and a source of positivity. So, I was home with about 20 hours of Glenn Gould playing Bach and I just put in on shuffle and didn't turn it off. So, I had Glenn Gould playing Back in my living room for a week straight, which nearly drove my wife out of the house. Some of that got into me and came out in the Dove's Army" melody. I was experiencing writer's block and decided that after a bike ride I was going to sit down and write a song, which I did. Afterwards I checked my email and there was a note from Dove announcing that his wife had just given birth to triplets, three boys. Dove used to be a guitarist and now he does graphic novels, he's an illustrator, and he's all into this superhero trip. So, I looked at this song as the soundtrack to his three sons becoming superheroes and saving the planet from negativity - the sound of overwhelming optimism overcoming the negativity of the world.
2. Song of the Vipers (Armstrong)
Louis Armstrong is one of the greatest musicians I've ever heard, and one of my favorite soloists, whether trumpet or voice. I picked that song because of the title, but I also have a fascination with jazz of the 1920s, before it codified, before right or wrong and it was clearly folk music. In the '20s it was just anything fucking goes! My arrangement for this and Oklahoma Stomp" were my attempt to draw a parallel between the lawlessness of Oklahoma jazz in the 2000s and the lawlessness of the jazz of the '20s. I also make my banjo debut on Vipers." One of my favorite things about '20s jazz is how they pass the ball like a basketball team. There's no long solos; people solo for 20 seconds then bam, next instrument. The foreground is constantly changing. Through editing I made that happen. It's a banjo, no wait it's a Rhodes solo, just a constant shuffling of orchestration. I also wanted it to be slight hallucinatory, to slightly drift into the dream world.
3. A Bird
This is a song that's never been played live, and I really hope the new Jacob Fred lineup works it out because it's one of Brian's best melodies. It was one of the last ones we did and Brian played it solo for about ten minutes and then I later tried to distill it down to this jazz nugget. That 'bass' you hear at the beginning is actually Brian playing Rhodes. It just builds up and builds up and then there's this epilogue at the end, which was the improvisation Brian had done at the session. I didn't know what I wanted to do with it but I sat down one day and transcribed exactly what he played, then overdubbed his left hand on the bass guitar and I overdubbed his right hand on the acoustic guitar. Suddenly it sounds like this composed thing, but it begins with something that Brian just came up with.
4. Oklahoma Stomp (Ellington)
That's been covered!
5. Goodnight Ollie
I love that song! Ollie is Brian's nephew and that was a little lullaby Brian came up with. That's the most overtly Beatle-y song on the album; you can really get your Hey Jude" on to that one! As far as I can remember there's no soloing. There's about ten different instruments on there that take turns taking the melody. It was also the last track on Lil Tae and the two versions couldn't be more different.
6. Old Love New Love
The basic track for that one was one-take, a live trio take that didn't get cut up too much but the overdubs a kitchen sink that got real orchestrated. I almost left on a bit of tape at the end where Haas said, That's the best we've ever played that song." Like much of the record it sounds like there's a bunch of synthesizers but we've never used anything like that. All the keyboard-y sounds you're hearing are either bass or melodica. There's also a sound that makes me think of a sandworm. Brian's girl Audra was making a necklace in the studio and I had her rub the necklace together in front of a microphone and then dropped it down three octaves. That's the sort of creeping, ominous sound in the middle of that song.
7. Crazy Fingers (Garcia)
That was a song a friend of mine, the one who introduced me to the Grateful Dead, always said Jacob Fred should do. Took us a while to get to it but what a gorgeous song. Keep in mind that it starts with Brian's brilliant solo performance and then becomes this.
8. The Slip
One of the best bands I've ever heard in my life. One of the first things that struck me when I first saw The Slip was their ability to turn on a dime. I wrote that song as an attempt to portray that aspect of their playing. It's sort of a mini-epic that goes a lot of different places and a portrait of some of my favorite guys.
I wrote Twinstar" for my wife. I got the title from a poem she'd written, and that was the song she marched down the aisle to at our wedding. It was the first song we did when we got to Winterwood Studios, and it was really an attempt to make a piece of classical music in the studio. That one got the most overdubs and it's the mix I'm most proud of on the album.
10. Earl Hines
Hines was a pianist and he and Louis Armstrong created a profound partnership back in the '20s. Earl Hines is the pianist I've always felt Haas most resembles in the jazz canon, just a sort of daredevil, stride thing combined with a classical background combined with this viper stance, and it all comes together. I feel like they're really parallel people. I wrote that song for Brian to highlight that parallel. Since it is a down home, New Orleans-y kind of thing I decided to play banjo instead of guitar, and keeping with the Sgt. Pepper theme, it made it a little more cinematic than guitar.
11. Bumper Crop pf Strange
The title is a reference to what an awesome crop of songs we found ourselves with at this point. We made a list of songs we wanted to play in the studio and when we saw them all written down in a row we were like, This is the best body of songs we've ever had for a record!" If I got carried away on the production on this record THIS is the song I got carried away on! My production is a little over-the-top, ADD. Brian and Raymer were pumped up about it so I left it totally opulent.
12. Walking Before Daylight (Layton)
It's a song by Sean Layton, the founder of the band. His version is just him on African thumb piano and singing, and I've always wanted to do an instrumental version of one of his tunes; he was such a good songwriter. Covering that song was actually Jason Smart's idea but we never got around to it. I did this track at Winterwood after Brian and Raymer were spent. We'd been tracking all day, really going through the paces. It was like 10 p.m., we'd put in a 12-hour day and they were going to relax and have a glass of wine. I asked the engineer if he had another half hour of steam for me to try something. That song is mostly me except for the drum set. I just love Sean Layton so much. Once I had it together I played it for a few people close to him and moved some of them to tears, so I felt I'd done a good job conjuring up one of the most beautiful souls I've ever met.
13. Autumnal/Vernal Equinox
Vernal Equinox" is just such a durable little melody that Brian and I kinda came up with together. We came up Sean Song" that we wrote for Sean Layton years and years ago, then rewrote it as Vernal Equinox" with a different chord progression and a very different form. Then, a few years after that, I rewrote it in a different key in half-time and called it Autumnal Equinox," which ended up the first track on Lil Tae. And then I ended up putting Vernal" and Autumnal Equinox" together in a suite, which is what you find on Winterwood. I have to say this is Raymer's outstanding performance on the record. He's playing so fast it sounds sped up, like the Jungle trick where you take a James Brown loop and play it at 45 rpm. Just incredible drumming. A lot of songs in the Jacob Fred catalog have come and gone, but Vernal Equinox" doesn't really go away. It's always been there and when it needs to take on a new shape it does.
It's a song that's always made my heart swell a bit when we played it. It's a bit sweeping, a bit sentimental and it's got an air of gratitude to it. And that's all the stuff I feel about Jacob Fred. I feel grateful to have been part of it and I feel hopeful to be included in the future and I feel like it's one of the most beautiful things in the world.