Sunday, January 18, 2009

2009: A Jazz Odyssey

Sometimes, you attend a concert and just wish the opening act would be over quickly, or maybe even not have been there at all. Other times, you come away with yet another band to enjoy besides the one you went to see in the first place. Last night in Denton, it was the latter.

I hadn't been to a Snarky Puppy show since their CD release party back in September, so it was high time to go again. There was only one opening act this time (unlike the three at the CD release), and it was one of those bands that I had heard of but never actually heard: The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.

One of the things that I did know about the JFJO was that there wasn't anyone named Jacob Fred in there, and a bit of further reading revealed that nobody in the band possessed any part of that moniker. Formed in the mid-'90s in Tulsa, the band consists until recently of keyboardist Brian Haas, guitarist/bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Josh Raymer. According to Wikipedia, Mathis left the band last year for other endeavors, so the touring version, featuring Haas and Raymer along with upright bassist Matt Hayes and electric/lap steel guitarist Chris Combs, is now the current lineup of the band.

So how to describe the band's music...I could punt and call it "fusion," but not at all the happy '80s-'90s version that now gets played in shopping malls. Elements of straight-ahead jazz are artfully mixed with touches of rock and the avant-garde, and what comes out is adventurous and pleasing to the ear, and the style may turn on a dime, going from mellow to raucous within mere minutes, while navigating a maze of tempos and feels. The compositions range from originals to offbeat jazz gems like Monk's "Four in One" and a medley of Rahsaan Roland Kirk tunes, and the originals include some very catchy tunes.

All in all, it's a great combination of sounds. The use of Combs' lap steel guitar on many tunes added a very unusual element to the proceedings, as it was often used as the melodic instrument. Hayes held down the fort masterfully, going from extended walking bass lines to strong rhythmic underpinnings of the more rock-like passages. Raymer's drumming often veered off into creative territory, sometimes seeming at odds with the rest of the tune but always coming back in sync. And Haas stole the show on many occasions with solos that ranged from sensitive to otherwordly, taking advantage of the large sound palette offered up by his Rhodes. And for as many times as things ventured into "out" territory, there was an equal number of those hook-laden melodic moments.

As I said earlier, it's rare to find an opening act that's as enjoyable as the main attraction, but the JFJO fits the bill. Check out some of their music on their website or their MySpace. And I can't wait till my new monthly allotment of eMusic downloads is available later this week, as the JFJO is definitely high on my list of new things to get.

Good puppy! Good puppy! I'd be remiss in finishing this review without saying anything about the band I went to see in the first place. Snarky Puppy was every bit as enjoyable as last time, and it was quite enjoyable to hear the different treatments that were given to the various tunes. Just as you never know how many people will be onstage at a Snarky show (it's usually between nine and twelve, and some tracks on the new CD have up to 18 people playing on them), you also never know what new twists and turns will be added to the tunes, be it new intros, tempo changes or variations on the groove. Special guest José Aponte took a nice solo turn on the drumset; he's the director of the Latin Jazz Ensemble at UNT, among other things, and Snarky leader/bassist Michael League said, "If you go to school at UNT, you really need to take a class from this guy!" I sure would if I were still there.

Snarky generously gave the JFJO the lion's share of the performance time, so their own set wasn't as long as it could have been, but I'm sure I'll catch them again really soon.

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