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Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey & the Race Riot Suite: Unique Inspiration

MOJA radio's Russ Davis catches up with JFJO at the Montreal Jazz Festival

Russ Davis with the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
Russ Davis with the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey

I’ve known for a long time now that there really is no other band like Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. It doesn’t matter that the lineup has changed over the years, the music has always been totally unique with a spirit of creativity and inventiveness that has set this unit apart and helped them carve out their own place in the world of modern music, jazz or otherwise. The latest incarnation featuring founding father, pianist Brian Haas, lap steel player Chris Combs, drummer Josh Raymer and bassist Jeff Harshbarger, has just released one of the bravest and most ambitious projects in their 15-year history, a brilliant musical expose on the terrible events that occurred in Tulsa in 1921 when an affluent, predominately African-American part of the city known as Greenwood was burned to the ground by a racist mob that also killed hundreds of innocent people. The project is titled Race Riot Suite. When I saw that JFJO was on the lineup for the Montreal Jazz Fest I immediately made sure I would have the time to get together with the four lads for a roundtable conversation about this new project with the unusual inspiration.

Before I reveal the details of that interview I must recall some of my earlier encounters with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, beginning with a late-night session at New York City’s Blue Note, where one of the earlier incarnations of the group played a very energetic set with guest artists like saxophonist Skerik and pianist Marco Benevento who joined with the band to really bring the heat. I thought to myself, “this is another entry in the jazzy jam band movement!” The band certainly played music from the rock repertoire and there were extended jams but this was something different. There was a unique style to this spirited performance that set them apart from piano-led combos like E.S.T., The Bad Plus and others that were dominating the modern jazz scene in the beginning of the 21st century. After I enjoyed a conversation with the guys in the studio that week I discovered more about what makes JFJO one of a kind, their unique musical vision and collective spirit.

With great pianists in jazz that I’ve met like Michel Camilo, Amina Figarova, Chucho Valdes and others, it’s the combination of their own musical influences that make them uniquely what they are. Each combines their own personal mixture of classical, rock, traditional and modern jazz and/or other elements with the folk music of their region to make a unique musical statement. And so it is with Brian Haas and his compatriots from the middle of America. As for JFJO, these guys travel the world constantly and have a legion of fans worldwide. They could have easily set up shop in most any of the major musical centers of the USA or elsewhere but they’ve decided to make their original home, Tulsa, their permanent base of operations. And therein lies a big reason, it seems to me, why they are the unique band they are today. The don’t play a certain style by design, they ARE a style, and I dare say only a band of musicians who love Duke Ellington as much as they do that famous Okie Leon Russell could make music that sounds like this. They’ve even given their style a name…”Red Dirt Jazz.” What a perfect moniker. And that leads to the reason why Race Riot Suite is such a logical extension of all the work they’ve done before. At last, a piece that not only reflects where they come from but gives the area a thoughtful, artistic gift that honors and challenges everyone who has ever called Tulsa their home. This is taking art to a totally different level beyond simple entertainment. Race Riot Suite is a work that reaches for enlightenment.

I heard JFJO on a hot summer night in New York’s Joe’s Pub a couple of years ago and witnessed what “Red Dirt Jazz” was all about for the first time. In concert JFJO can really stretch, and really let it rip too! As Brian Haas explained after the set, he had to tell the staff at Joe’s Pub to nail down the piano because he has a tendency to “go all Jerry Lee Lewis” sometimes. I think you may know what that means and I know I certainly do as I sat right next to the stage for the set and I’m still finding splinters in the clothes I wore that night! The set was filled with tunes from their then current release One Day in Brooklyn. It features their own unique compositions with everything from the Middle Eastern influence in the song “Imam,” to a piece that is a classical music-hip hop fusion on “Dretoven,” an homage to two of Haas’ favorite composers, Beethoven and Dr. Dre! Then there is a stylistic jump from to the Beatles, to Monk’s “Four In One.” With Jacob Fred you never know what’s next but you won’t get their “greatest hits,” even though after a decade plus of recording they have plenty of established music to draw from, you’ll get their current work and they’re always moving forward.

Besides the power of the music in the live set on that night in New York, I was struck by the unique voice that is the lap steel. It was again revealed to me in my post-concert interview with Mr. Haas that when Chris Combs entered the JFJO lineup he’d finally found the perfect ingredient that would complete the picture and truly push the sound of the band into the stylistic space he calls “Red Dirt Jazz.” The lap steel as played by Mr. Combs is not the traditional country style, instead it is his own voice coming through with a moaning, plaintive sound that is at the same time prominent and integrated into the band’s overall palate. It’s unique and a joy to behold. There’s that word again, unique.

Jumping forward to now and to The Race Riot Suite, I had the chance to talk to the guys at the Montreal Jazz Festival before I’d heard the music. They were obviously excited for everyone to hear it, on recording and live, but couldn’t recreate it in their show later that night because they were appearing as the quartet only, and this new work features the stellar horn section of Steven Bernstein, Peter Apfelbaum, Jeff Coffin, Matt Leland and Mark Southerland. I’d heard about the project in some advance press material and had only vaguely heard of the event that inspired the music, the 1921 tragedy fueled by racism, pure hatred, jealousy and any number of other base emotions that mark the worst of what a human being can be. The fact that the accounts of the event have been hidden from the public record and history books was part of the reason why Chris Combs, the composer of the music, was inspired to bring light to this very dark period of Tulsa and American history.

As I talked to the members of JFJO I saw in their faces and heard in their voices how deadly serious they are about this project. I consider them brave artists for taking on such a task when simply presenting more lighthearted fare would certainly not open them up for any of the possible backlash from the segment of our society that would prefer that things like this not be dredged up again. JFJO was not going to take the easy route here, or at any time really as their history proves, and boldly moved on to complete this work, recorded in a studio in Tulsa not a mile from where the tragedy took place. The guys are well versed in the actual events of the burning of the Greenwood section of Tulsa in 1921, the murder of hundreds of people and the subsequent cover-up by local civic officials and press all in league with the KKK. They had been working on a project titled Ludwig, their interpretation of Beethoven’s 3rd and 6th symphonies, in conjunction with the OK Mozart Festival in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and were in the “classical suite” mode when the creation of Race Riot Suite began. So there you have the classical influence as the work progresses in movements marking the chronological events of the race riot from prelude to final prayer. But then there is the jazz.

A friend of mine who is a dancer and actress, once said to me that she felt something was only truly art if while taking it in one is transported, even for just a short time. Well, with respect to Race Riot Suite, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey transports the listener back to the year 1921 in a most effective manner. Brian Haas said in our Montreal conversation that he felt this was the most “straight ahead jazz” recording in JFJO’s history. I won’t disagree, as the music takes us back to that glorious musical time called “The Jazz Age!” It was a time when the music was hot, everyone was dancing and the rules were all being broken. The girls were bobbing off their hair and wearing short skirts, the boys were drinking and dancing with unbridled abandon, all in a display of the fact that times had changed and the young were breaking away from a past dictated by previous generations. And in the Greenwood Section of Tulsa the African American community was obviously breaking some unwritten rules as well, those rules being that they were not to be allowed to achieve, enjoy and maintain a level of success above the white community. I’ll leave it to you to read up on the accounts of the riot itself but suggest you have the music of JFJO’s Race Riot Suite playing while you read. You’ll be taken on a trip through the sweet celebration of success and enjoyment of life that Greenwood experienced followed by the destruction of their businesses, homes and lives. There is shock in the aftermath followed by reflection and hope for understanding and some resolution that might lead to a better future. All along the way the music reflects the dynamics of the situation with that familiar JFJO sound and spirit enhanced by the incredible horn section that truly puts the finishing touches on creating the authentic style of jazz from 1921. As the JFJO guys said, “Who better than Steven Bernstein and crew to make that happen?”

The Race Riot Suite by Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is compelling music in every way, joyous and disturbing, filled with light and darkness, modern and classic and not to be missed or dismissed. They will be touring the music, complete with horns, in the Autumn all over the USA. Seek it out and prepare to be deeply touched.

Originally Published