The musicians in Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey thrive on change. When bassist Reed Mathis and keyboardist Brian Haas formed the trio fifteen years ago, they focused on a blend of post-bop and post-James Brown funk, covering cuts by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Prince and Maceo Parker. But with each album, they've reinvented themselves. "Our recipe hasn't sat still in fifteen years," Mathis says. "We'd be miserable restaurant owners. We've changed up the recipe at least once a year, every year."
And Lil' Tae Rides Again, the band's brand-new disc on the Hyena imprint, may mark the most dramatic change yet. It's an adventurous electronic odyssey that has a lot more to do with Brian Eno and Boards of Canada than Monk and Miles, with all the improvisation done on computers rather than instruments. Mathis, Haas and new drummer Josh Raymer spent about a year making the album, which was much more time than the band had devoted to previous efforts.
"A lot of our records we made in a weekend, including mixing," Mathis says. "We set out to have an adventure on this project, deliberately not know what's going to happen. Like, 'Let's just go for it and the record will make itself, and we'll be its vehicle.' That was a really rewarding process. It was also a time-stressful process for somebody with my temperament. I like to aim at something. I don't care if I hit it, but there's just some part of me that likes to aim at a specific point. And that's not what we did with this project. But you can't get a record like that — like, the result can only be gotten by that risky sort of groping-in-the-dark approach. And what we ended up with totally surpassed my expectations. It was really different than I thought it would end up."
Mathis says he had an idea of what they'd do before they went into the studio, a century-old warehouse in their home town of Tulsa, but over the course of the year, new music kept presenting itself. As a result, much of what he'd initially envisioned didn't end up on the record at all.
The group also recruited electronic music guru Tae Meyulks to produce this album, offering him complete control. "We gave him full license," Mathis remembers. "When we started the project, we were like, 'Dude, you do whatever you want with our stuff. You can cut it up. You can take out my bass part and play your own bass part if you don't like mine. You can cut my bass part up and make a new one out of the pieces. You can mash up stuff we play to make new songs out of it.' He's been a hero of mine for years and years. His records are some of my favorite music I've ever heard, let alone from Oklahoma. It was just a real dream come true to work with him. The record we made together, man, I wouldn't trade for the world. It's just beautiful."
Unfortunately, the band's plans to take Meyulks on the road to help reproduce Lil' Tae's electronics on stage didn't work out as well, and they parted ways after the first night. The band had also hoped to use Ableton's Live sequencing and looping software on the tour, even experimenting with different computers, but gave up on that, too. "We cared too much about the paying audience to work it out at their expense," Mathis says. "But that will definitely be part of future Jacob Fred performances. Out of respect for the audience, we've decided to go with what's guaranteed and what we've spent fifteen years honing. So basically, we're re-creating the sonic tapestry of the record using good old-fashioned sweat and effects pedals. In my opinion, we're doing a very good job."
Re-creating live the sound of an album spawned by computers is no small feat. "It's definitely challenging," Mathis admits, "but that's always been our comfort zone. We've been in a constant state of challenging ourselves for fifteen years now. If we stop giving ourselves impossible tasks, we'd probably just self-destruct.
"We've been starting off by playing the record in its entirety," he continues. "It's a different animal, obviously, in performance. It's going well. The songs are being very nice to us. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. People who have been listening to this band since 1994 are telling us without blinking that it's the best they've ever heard us."
That's saying a lot, since the group has released some brilliant records — especially 2005's Sameness of Difference, which featured clever interpretations of songs by the Flaming Lips, Neil Young, Björk, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck and Jimi Hendrix, whom Mathis was really into in middle school. "But when I got to high school," he says, "all the cool guys — I've always used music as this excuse to be among cool people — were listening to Charlie Parker and Coltrane. I was like, 'Wow, I'll play whatever those guys are playing.' And next thing I know, I'm listening to Bitches Brew and hanging out with Brian Haas."
While Haas and Mathis have been constants, they've gone through a few drummers over the years, enlisting Raymer two years ago. And on this tour, the trio has added multi-instrumentalist Pete Tomshany to play guitar and a vibraphone he made out of circular saw blades, which Mathis describes as very melodic. "He's playing it with mallets and running it through effects," he explains. "I've never seen anything like it. It's this beautiful sound being made by something that could kill you. And if that's not a description of jazz, I don't know what is."
Lil' Tae is definitely a killer album. And after completing it, the musicians spent a celebratory week at a state-of-the-art recording studio near a lake in Arkansas. "It was like a second honeymoon for me and my wife," Mathis recalls. "We all brought our significant others and just had this amazingly relaxed recording session in Eden. The next record is already in process."
The Odyssey continues.