By Nicholas Foster
In the last 20 years, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about jazz—specifically what it is, is not and whether anyone still cares enough to draw the line. During the last 20 years, there has been a nearly equal amount of indifference, if not disdain for the whole conversation—not least from the members of the Tulsa-based Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (JFJO), who this year embark on their third decade of challenging (when not outright ignoring) the stereotypes and rules of “jazz.”
In their current incarnation, JFJO is somewhat of a study in economy, having been pared down to just three members after the critically-acclaimed “Race Riot Suite,” which boasted a nine-person lineup featuring no less than five horns.
With 2014 being their twentieth anniversary JFJO has used their latest record, “Millions: Live in Denver,” to re-imagine old fan favorites and to demonstrate that they only need one-third of the larger band to create a comparable amount of cacophony.
For the most part, the album is a success. JFJO—which now consists of Brian Haas on keyboards, Chris Combs on guitar and Josh Raymer on drums—has long been championed for their unique compositional sensibilities, many of which shine through here.
Being comprised entirely of reworked material from previous releases, JFJO chose some of their best material from the past 20 years. The resulting album is a nice swatch of the band’s career.
Another staple of the band is each member’s incredible proficiency on their instrument, displayed in full force on “Millions.” Haas sounds as invigorated and excitable as he ever has, shifting between grand piano, Fender Rhodes and bass synthesizer (though his best work comes on the Rhodes). Raymer is a dominating presence behind the drum kit, playing with an unmistakable loping swagger that underscores each track.
For the first time on a JFJO record, Combs gets to work with textures as much as melodies, which provides much of the sonic backdrop for “Millions.” Some of the most genuine and interesting moments on the album come from his mastery of tones and effects, specifically delay, which both maximizes the group’s capacity for noise and adds layers of ambiance not often heard in typical jazz.
Of course, there are many sounds and styles on “Millions” not typically heard in jazz, for better or worse. While much of the record is refreshing at first listen, it is also somewhat exhausting after a period of time.
As heavy and dense as so much of it is, there is a surprisingly small amount of counterweight in the form of open, spacial sections. For example, the track “Slow Breath, Silent Mind” ironically carries over neither, which is what gave the 2007 recording much of its character.
The other obvious problem is that, for all the players’ intellect and experience, the songs seem somewhat formulaic in their disregard for formulas.
Every song seems to follow a basic melody-chaos-melody structure, which can be said about much of the jazz genre, but due to the fairly static instrumentation, many of the middle sections of songs sound awfully similar, and are often not engaging enough. Perhaps it is as simple of a fix as a more detailed arrangement, but at this point JFJO is too smart and too successful to be reduced to chaos every four minutes.
There are bright spots, of course. “I Love Steve Haas,” a daring mixture of electro-punk and Miles Davis, seems to exemplify what JFJO does best. While “Seansong,” an homage to their late drummer, is a beautiful closer and welcome return of Combs’ lapsteel, curiously absent from much of the album.
As fluid an art form as jazz is, most every song has its high and low points, amidst the chaos or outside of it, and at such a micro-level, it mostly comes down to taste anyways.
Although little homogeneous, but never bland, “Millions” is at least a good retrospective. With an album of new material due out this summer, fans should not have to wait long to get their Fred fix.
Moreover, even the rougher spots—such as the aforementioned “Slow Breath”—are never offensive. At worst they are somewhat abrasive and difficult—but Coltrane was abrasive and difficult too. If only history would be so kind to JFJO.