Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, with Drop Trio

Perhaps more than any other genre of music, jazz is celebrated for -- and shackled by -- its past. When your titans of yesteryear include Armstrong, Ellington and Parker, it's hard to move one's mind-set away from their epic contributions either artistically or journalistically (indeed, one of the most exciting jazz releases this year is a "lost" 1957 John Coltrane/Thelonious Monk show). But the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is attempting to freshen things up and attract a nontraditional audience to the music. With a background in alternative rock, Brian Haas (piano), Reed Mathis (bass, effects) and Jason Smart (drums) pull off a triumph with their latest CD, The Sameness of Difference. Featuring both originals ("The Maestro," "Santiago," "Halliburton Breakdown") and covers wildly adapted to an avant-garde jazz template (including the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," Flaming Lips' "The Spark that Bled," Björk's "Isobel" and Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down"), the JFJO creates something wholly new. Haas's piano is equal parts Cecil Taylor and Vince Guaraldi, while Mathis's frequent otherworldy electronic effects add a spacey, dissonant sheen to Smart's cracking anchor. Alternately reflective and free-floating, this is jazz as modern mood music. So while most casual listeners equate modern jazz with the limp and safe office/elevator vibes of the "smooth" subgenre and the JFJO may seem too experimental to many, they're showing that jazz can have both a celebrated past and a vital future.

The JFJO is brilliantly paired for this date with Houston/Austin's Drop Trio, hot off their own new release, Live at Cezanne. Though this year has seen a stuffed Cadillac's worth of Houston-area rappers garner national attention, don't be surprised if jazz and jam circles outside the city soon embrace these immensely talented jazz funkers. Ian Varley (keyboards), Patrick Flanagan (bass) and Nuje Blattel (drums) play an amalgamation of jazz, funk and prog-rock in their own brand of "spaceship music," and this live effort is named for the tiny local club where it was recorded. Eight of the 11 songs here are takes on tracks from their previous records, the debut, Big Dipper, and the wholly improvised, avant-garde leaning Leap. Thankfully, there's no antiseptic faithful re-creation here -- many tunes are utterly transformed by Varley's heavy use of acoustic piano, with his favored vintage electric keys playing a mostly supporting part. "Wallawalla," "Wreck of the Zephyr" and "Mothership," with its Tito Puente-as-alien intro, are not so much better or worse than their studio counterparts as they shoot off in challenging and exciting branches from a shared root. "Abbey Rhodes" turns Varley into the similarly hirsute Gregg Allman in one section, and "Robot Suit I" is the best example of the cohesion between Varley's plugged and unplugged worlds. Of the new tunes, "Shelby" brings a funky good time with Blattel's drum work, and the reggae/samba styled "L.U.G." makes the most of multiple time shifts. There are some minor flaws, though. Flanagan's bass seems oddly buried too low in the sound mix, and the jam-friendly trio gets the occasional penalty for Excessive Noodling in the End Zone. But overall, Cezanne is equally suited to both those who've never heard the group before and diehards who regularly download live shows from the band's Web site. At this year's Houston Press Music Awards, the group won Best Jazz/Funk, and Varley won Best Keyboardist. This CD easily shows just why both honors were well deserved.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero