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Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s Riotous Ambition

Trio’s expansive new project explores a ghastly corner of Oklahoma history

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey

As middle school students, Chris Combs and Josh Raymer knew that they could become professional jazz musicians, even if they were from Tulsa, Okla. After all, they had the irresistible role models of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, a hometown trio. “Most of the musicians I know in Tulsa I know from going to Jacob Fred shows,” says Combs, 27. “That band was playing some of the most forward-thinking music we’d ever heard before, and at the same time they were very outspoken about questioning the government and who we are. I loved the crowds; they included punks, hippies and jazz-school kids, because the band filled in a lot of gaps for people. It was always very empowering to go to a Jacob Fred show and leave feeling, ‘I could do this. I could take my life and redefine what it means to be a Tulsan, the way these guys have.'”

What Combs didn’t know back then was that Tulsa was the site of one of the deadliest race riots in American history. Over 16 hours on May 31 and June 1, 1921, more than 1,200 businesses, churches, schools and homes were burned to the ground in the African-American neighborhood of Greenwood, according to an official Oklahoma investigation. More than 10,000 people were left homeless; more than 800 were admitted to hospitals, and between 100 and 300 people died. Then the whole thing was so thoroughly hushed up that Oklahoma school kids such as Combs and Raymer were never taught about it. “I wasn’t even aware of the incident till I was in high school,” Combs says, “and that’s only because the first official report on the riots was released in 2001. This terrible, awful thing had happened in this safe, whitewashed city I had grown up in, and I hadn’t known anything about it. This flourishing African-American community had been right here in Tulsa and I had had no contact with it. I started reading more and more and getting deeper and deeper into it.”

What Combs also didn’t know was that he would someday join the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and would compose for the band an album-length piece now being released as the Race Riot Suite. On the disc, the band’s current quartet line-up (which also includes Raymer on drums, Jeff Harshbarger on upright bass and the only remaining original member, Brian Haas, on keys) is joined by five guest horn players: Sex Mob’s Steven Bernstein, former Flecktone Jeff Coffin, Peter Apfelbaum, Mark Southerland and Matt Leland.

It often seems as if there’s a sixth horn in the arrangement, a high, singing voice that sounds like a clarinet. That’s actually Combs’ lap-steel guitar, an instrument he rarely used before joining the JFJO. He had been a guitarist, but when he was hired as a temporary supplemental musician for the JFJO tour to support the 2008 release, Lil Tae Rides Again, it was to play lap steel because it so uncannily mimicked the album’s electronica. When Reid Mathis, the band’s astonishingly melodic bassist, left after that tour, Combs was hired as a full-time lap-steel guitarist. “Having the lap steel has changed us as a band,” Haas claims. “One cool thing about the lap steel is it isn’t really meant to be played fast; it’s meant to be played in an open, sweeping way, like the landscape around here. That’s helped us to slow down, and it’s helped our music to have more space, more breath. When there’s more space, there’s more clarity.

“When I started this band in 1994,” Haas continues, “all I was listening to was late Coltrane, Ornette’s Prime Time and Steve Coleman, and much of what we played was in that frenetic, choppy vein. But as we got older, our tastes have changed and our sound has too. The lap steel fits in with the Tulsa aesthetic-from Bob Wills to Chet Baker-and those connections help us to relax because we realize a lot of the work has already been done before us.”

The JFJO spent the first half of 2010 working on an absurdly ambitious project called Ludwig. The quartet wanted to play Beethoven’s third and sixth symphonies with a 50-piece orchestra, mixing charts with improvisation. They found an Oklahoma ensemble-the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra-that agreed to finance and perform the piece, and they found a gifted arranger-Noam Faingold-who could reinvent Beethoven for jazz quartet and orchestra on a tight schedule. The JFJO premiered the piece at the BSO’s OK Mozart Festival on June 12 of last year. The event nearly sold out the festival’s 1,700-seat house and the reaction was largely enthusiastic. That success led directly to the Race Riot Suite.

Ludwig helped us to conceive of a longer line than we’d ever played before,” Haas explains. “It taught us to hear the entire sweep of a passage 10, 15 or 20 minutes long before we even began it. It’s similar to the Ellington suites, because Duke was able to take classical forms and force them into the jazz idiom. When everything hinges on what came before and what comes next, it’s much easier to tell a clear story. When he was writing the Race Riot Suite, I think Chris was greatly influenced by Duke’s Far East Suite.”

“Working on Ludwig totally reprogrammed my brain to work in a larger context,” Combs confirms. “That’s something that’s missing from today’s music where everything is single-driven and albums are losing sales. It was fascinating to work with Beethoven and see how much emotional mileage you can get out of theme and variation. The Race Riot Suite loosely follows the baroque suite form: There’s a series of dances, and each dance has a time signature and a gait that it follows.”

“Black Wall Street,” for example, evokes the bustling vitality of the Greenwood neighborhood before the riot with finger-snapping, syncopated 4/4 rhythms. “The Burning,” by contrast, conjures up the deliberate burning of the neighborhood (including the dropping of bombs from airplanes) with a brisk, jittery 3/4 pulse. In both cases, the music of the 1920s is suggested by devices borrowed from New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and from Tulsa’s own Bob Wills. But those 90-year-old techniques often morph suddenly into the dissonance and harmolodic improvisation of modern jazz.

“It’s not as big a leap as you might think,” Combs argues. “When the band is on the road, we listen to a lot of Armstrong and Ellington from back in the day but also a lot of Ornette and Mingus. And all of them liked group improvisation where a group of people stand up and say something together. It’s polyphony; it’s people learning to work together, and that’s what I was trying to capture on this project.”

Originally Published