It had to be somewhat dispiriting for the jazz fan to see less than one hundred people turn out for Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's October 13th show in the Lounge at Higher Ground. After all‚ they've played in the Burlington‚ Vermont area before and they're touring behind a newly-released album that's getting plenty of deserved visibility.
Still‚ there was no sense of the band itself being daunted when they took the stage and began to play Race Riot Suite (in its entirety -- in sequence). The entrance of the horns-- renowned trumpeter Steve Bernstein and saxophonists Mark Southerland and Peter Apfelbaum (who's played with Trey Anastasio and Jamie Masefield among others)--had enough majesty to sound as a clarion call‚ so all the ambition and audacity at the heart of this JFJO project came through right at the start. It continued on throughout the first hour of the show to its conclusion.
It's somewhat disconcerting to hear the studio recording of this instrumental account of the ethno-genocide (as keyboardist Brian Haas described it) that occurred in the group's hometown of Tulsa‚ Oklahoma in 1921. The core quartet‚ including the author of the piece‚ lap steel guitarist Chris Combs‚ receded into the background as an even larger horn section becomes not just integral to the instrumental story‚ but dominant in its retelling.
But in this live setting‚ which provides a sufficiently fresh perspective to compel returning to the record‚ everything comes into balance. The ingenuity of the arrangements comes to the fore and the composition's flow becomes wholly apparent. And in this live setting‚ the horn charts find each individual playing offsetting melody lines as often as vigorously playing in unison. And also there were plenty of intervals for improvisation‚ as when Apfelbaum dueted with Haas at the forty-minute point. This only extended the mood of the compositions‚ whether it was the exultant likes of "Black Wall Street" or the more portentous "Cover Up."
Not surprisingly‚ the music bristled with energy all the way down to the rhythm section. Double bassist Jeff Harshbarger and drummer Josh Raymer both played with flair easily evident though the superb clarity house sound. And their panache only inspired the rest of the group‚ particularly the horn trio‚ who played with a remarkable precision given the complexity of the piece (so much so it seemed superfluous for Haas to stand and conduct at certain junctures).
If the composer of Race Riot Suite is self-effacing to a fault‚ that's only because it saves JFJO from becoming preachy. Combs used his instrument with a versatility that matches the musicians around him. Only on occasion did he adopt the familiar warm waves of steel guitar‚ preferring instead to insert more staccato notes with a noticeably barbed tone: as much as any of the horn players front center stage‚ the guitarist seated in the rear corner of the cramped space‚ set a tone for the evening and maintained it with his instrument and his approach.
And the same could be said for Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey at large. Rather than play alone after the exposition of the suite‚ they continued to play with Bernstein‚ Southerland and Apfelbaum‚ reaffirming the bond with these instrumentalists. The ensemble played just as heartily as they had previously in the evening too. Even though an encore would've been a reward to the loyalty of the attendees who lustily called for it‚ the concert could not have sounded any more complete than it did.