A few years back I came across the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey playing at a festival. It was my first experience seeing the band and it was a memorable one. I was completely captivated by the bands' approach to playing music; they are educated in jazz language and improvise with reckless abandonment. I realized I just witnessed something special‚ like a new chapter of jazz music was being written right in front of me.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Brian Haas in late April as the band was winding down a big month with weekly residencies in NYC and Boston with many of special guest musicians. It was a thrill to have a conversation with this musical innovator. Speaking to him was just like his music - intense with a lot of interesting things to say. Hope you dig it.
MM: So you've been busy lately; a lot of exciting things are going on for Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey with the residencies in Boston and NYC and you've had tons of guests sitting in.
BH: Oh man‚ we're super psyched about all that stuff. We've gotten to play with some of our great friends and even some our heroes. The first week we had Steve Kimock - he's a friend of our bassist (Reed Mathis) and drummer (Jason Smart). He played with us and that was fun. The second week our friend Sam Kininger‚ the saxophonist from Soulive‚ played with us. I would say the third and fourth weeks of the residencies definitely qualify as playing with heroes of ours. The third week was George Garzone‚ who is one of the greatest living saxophonists‚ and that was just amazing to play with him; he's a musical genius. The fourth week we played with David Fiuczynski‚ who is also a hero of ours. The fifth week‚ which is next week‚ we'll be playing with The Slip.
MM: I've always found it interesting that you have a composition entitled "The Slip."
BH: Yeah‚ Reed wrote that after the first time...well‚ we heard them a few times‚ but we were at a festival and they just blew us away. They played some incredibly innovative shit and they just schooled us (laughs). It was a real surprise because we heard stuff from them before and it never really blew us away; then at this festival the way they were playing was just unbelievable and the way they were improvising was brilliant. They're incredible improvisers and I think they don't really get the credit they deserve. There's a lot to that band and if they are in a certain mood the way they play is untouchable; they improvise in a very high evolution of jazz terms.
MM: Yeah definitely. The way the three of them communicate on stage together…
BH: Exactly‚ it's a great conversation. That's why we wrote that tune because that's what Jacob Fred is about: a great conversation on stage.
MM: Well‚ going along with that‚ what are some of your ideas about what it means to be an improviser?
BH: I think your mind has to be open and you have to remove yourself from the concept of forms. That's one of the things with Jacob Fred; we improvise on forms‚ and a lot of people think it's written out stuff‚ but we're just improvising on forms and making it make sense. We're giving it a form and we're giving it shape. I love free jazz‚ you know‚ chaotic free jazz‚ and with Jacob Fred it's free jazz but we give it form on the spot‚ and make it cohesive on the spot. For me‚ I think being an improviser is taking risks and being willing to fall on your ass; that's what makes it real. You have to be willing to be removed from your comfort zone‚ and you have to go for stuff you are not comfortable with. You have to be willing to suck. You have to be willing to fall flat on your ass. That's what makes it all so real. It's about pushing the two guys you're on stage with into new territory and not just relying on what you know. One thing that we don't do with Jacob Fred is take solos over chords or vamps; that's boring to us. What we like to do is improvise chords‚ improvise changes‚ improvise together; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. We've been doing this for almost ten years now‚ so it really works most of the time. We're sucking less and less each year (laughs). But I think good jazz music is about being willing to suck‚ and being willing to not play safe. I'm not into playing safe shit‚ and I never have been. I always was into challenging myself; when I was younger I would compete in classical competitions‚ and a lot of times the way I would win was by forgetting huge chunks of the piece. Other pianists competing would stumble around and try to figure it out and remember the composition where I would just start improvising and keep it going in the style of Beethoven or Chopin or Stravinsky. I would just keep going and bullshit my way through it and win competitions. (Laughter)
MM: I agree; for the most part live music shouldn't be about safety. It's just that - you're not supposed to know what is going to happen.
BH: Yeah‚ it's not that much fun to listen to. But for some people it is and in a certain context or in a certain situation. We're getting ready to see The Flaming Lips on Sunday‚ and that's an example of where we love the band and we love their compositions‚ and it is a very safe show. They hit the stage and they know what they are going to play and they know what it's going to sound like. But in terms of jazz language‚ jazz idioms‚ the jazz context‚ it's not about safety. But I love The Flaming Lips‚ and I love rock n' roll‚ and I mean I don't want to hear a 110-piece orchestra trying to improvise on Beethoven's 9th Symphony‚ you know (laughs)? I want to hear them play the 9th Symphony and rip it. So it's definitely about language; it's definitely about idioms.
MM: I think in a lot of ways what Jacob Fred is doing is the next step in jazz. Not to toot your horn or anything‚ but if you look at the history of jazz it's all about evolving from the ideas of the past and putting a new spin on them and creating a new sound. That's the way I personally feel about it…
BH: I agree with you; that's our intention behind it. What you just said to me is exactly what George Garzone said to me after we played with him‚ and it's exactly what David Fiuczynski said to me after we played together. He said something like‚ "I've been hearing about you guys for years‚ and I didn't believe what I've been hearing. Now that I've played with you guys I realize your innovation."
MM: Yeah‚ it's a very innovative sound. A new sound...which is funny because I feel the same way about The Slip and The Flaming Lips; in different context‚ you're all creating a new sound.
BH: I totally agree. The Flaming Lips are from Oklahoma just like Jacob Fred.
MM: No kidding‚ I didn't know that.
BH: They've been based out of Oklahoma City since 1984.
MM: Oklahoma‚ wow. That blew me away. I saw you guys back a few years ago at a festival; the first time I saw you guys play and I was just shocked. Watching you guys play I was just like‚ "Holy shit‚ what is this?" (Laughs) And then you said‚ "We're from Oklahoma." (Laughing) What? Here we are at this festival in New York and I just had a mind-fuck‚ and...yep‚ that's my favorite band from Oklahoma - by far. (Laughter) I think that's the funniest part: three guys from Oklahoma who are perhaps the most innovative jazz group today? That just blows me away.