Club B-10 is one more way MASS MoCA has turned North Adams' former textile mill into a cultural oasis. Accessible by the elevator that separates the gift shop from the coffee bar‚ B-10 is a high-ceilinged room with windows on two sides and tables spread about the space; extra tables share space on a wood-and-pipes platform with the sound and light boards. Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey may have deserved a slot at the Freihofer's Jazz Festival (which was happening at the same time about an hour to the west)‚ but given the choice between seeing this incredible group in a small club in the Berkshires or in the middle of a jostling sea of overheated people who've been drinking all day long‚ I'll choose the club 10 times out of 10.
Besides‚ been there and done that. The first time I saw Jacob Fred was at Freihofer's just three years before‚ when the trio demolished the small stage with some of the most galvanizing music I'd heard in years. A lot of things have gone down with the group since then‚ including four releases (two in the last year) and multiple personnel changes. The trio is now a quartet‚ thanks to the addition of lap-steel guitar player Chris Combs. Yeah‚ I know‚ I asked the same question: "Lap Steel with jazz?!" Trust me -- it works like a charm.
Light was still streaming into the space when JFJO took their places on the small raised stage next to the longest wall of windows. The group was arranged in a semi-circle‚ with keyboardist Brian Haas facing drummer Josh Raymer. Haas' upright piano didn't help the audience's sightlines‚ but the configuration is definitely necessary. Whether Jacob Fred is playing their own catalog or "de-ranging" standards from Jimi Hendrix‚ Thelonious Monk‚ and the Beatles‚ the result makes a Rubric's Cube seem simple‚ so the lines of communication have to stay wide open.
Haas counted the band into Monk's "Four in One‚" and the dichotomy got off to a flying start. While Haas‚ Raymer and bassist Jeff Harshbarger held a course into the heart of progressive jazz‚ Combs' lap-steel fills were deep in the heart of country music. It was a case of "One of these things is not like the other… AND I DON'T CARE!" Combs and Haas batted the spotlight back and forth while Raymer tossed in a sweet Second Line beat. Harshbarger's foundation work was fat as a well-fed squirrel‚ and his interplay with Raymer showed no sign that the bassist had joined the group only three months before.
The set was a sumptuous taste-plate of JFJO's last few discs‚ including the latest release Stay Gold and the first-takes-only One Day in Brooklyn (the debut recording of Jacob Fred as a quartet). The latter disc is where "Four" and Abdullah Ibrahim's "Iman" came from‚ and "Iman" benefited greatly from the ghostly vibe Combs' steel brought to the party. Combs also brought along some powerful tunes of his own: "The Sensation of Seeing Light" and "The Return‚" both from Stay Gold.
I'd felt disappointed when I saw Jacob Fred's instrument package didn't include the Fender Rhodes Haas had used to bewitch me three years ago‚ but that disappointment didn't stick around. For one thing‚ Haas could be playing Schroeder's toy piano from Peanuts and he'd still kick your ass with blinding passion and exemplary technique. Besides‚ any weirdness the Rhodes could have provided was more than adequately replaced by the shimmering effects Combs doled out over the course of the two-hour set.
Along with his playing‚ Haas kept us amused with the introductions to his own intense compositions. He said the whimsy-laced "Trampoline Phoenix" was about jumping on trampolines with your friends ("They all have nets around them now‚ so they're not as dangerous as when I was a kid…")‚ and explained that the volcanic suite "Old Love/New Love" was a product of "the smartest thing I've ever done… I got divorced!" The melodica mounted on the piano also had amusing qualities‚ but it also let Haas add texture to the snake-charming "Seeing Light" and the Dr. Dre-meets-Beethoven mash-up "Drethoven."
On my iPod‚ JFJO is billed as "Genreless." That's not technically true -- it's just that so many influences have been infused into this one sensational package‚ and any attempt to stuff them into one musical box or one creative corner would be an exercise in futility. That said‚ I'll still claim them for Jazz‚ because just as that genre needs the boundless anarchy of Mostly Other People Do the Killing‚ it also needs Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's twin streaks of electricity and exploration to reach a 21st-century level.