Chris Combs on Race Riot Suite, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's forthcoming new album
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (due at Dazzle tomorrow and Thursday) has just made an important record. Just how important remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: When this quartet of proud Oklahomans turns its attention to one of its state's most shameful events, the musical results are electrifying and devastating.
The group's new album, Race Riot Suite, due in stores in August, is a meditation on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Largely unmentioned in American history, the Tulsa Race Riot consumed the affluent "Black Wall Street" district of Tulsa in a huge fire. Accounts of lives lost vary between a total of 39 dead to well over a thousand.
This troubling, tragic chapter in American history is the basis for a melancholy, sweeping suite that brings the listener from the ragtime past through the hip-hop groove of the present and on to the uncharted drum-and-bass of the future, all filtered through the lens of jazz. Race Riot Suite is the type of ambitious, big sonic manifesto that at the very least will make you miss albums, and at the most make you reconsider the music currently in your iPod. In short, it's an important record.
In advance of its two-day run at Dazzle, which kicks off with two sets tomorrow night followed by another pair of shows on Thursday, we spoke with Chris Combs, lap steel guitar player for Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, about the conception of Race Riot Suite, the presence of lap steel guitar in jazz bands, and the mission of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.
Westword: You play lap steel guitar in a jazz band. Is there precedent for that?
Chris Combs: Yeah, actually. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys are a Western hot swing band based in Oklahoma that utilizes the lap steel, which is a bit different than steel pedal guitar. Jazz music has a big influence on the instrument. I guess what's different about Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is that it's rarely used as a solo voice, especially how we use it on Race Riot Suite.
I hope you feel me when I say this -- and I don't mean it as a slur: It makes your stuff sound really country.
[laughs] No, not at all. We're from Oklahoma! So that's to be expected.
But It's still funky, and I mean really funky. Is that something that you owe to playing the jam-bands circuit? Is "jam band" an insult?
Yeah, we're funky, and no, we don't see "jam band" as a slur. There's a part of that in what we do. As far as our influences go, music that the band is listening to now is a lot of contemporary music, not necessarily jazz.
Between this record and your previous project, Ludwig [a contemporary arrangement of Beethoven's 3rd and 6th symphonies], you are creating projects with a lot of opportunity to cross over to a mainstream audience.
A lot of the stuff on the record is influenced by traditional jazz and the stuff we are listening to right now, like noise and punk and Radiohead. The Race Riot Suite wouldn't have happened had we not done Ludwig. We reprogrammed our brains from what we had been playing, and were interested in doing something with the guys on the record. Something that would push us as a band and makes us all uncomfortable. It forced us to come up with a bigger sound.
Can you walk me through the conception of Race Riot Suite? What sort of stake did four non-black guys have as a band in telling the tale of the Black Wall Street?
We felt obligated as Oklahomans to shine a light. What played a big part in the creation of the suite was that it wasn't talked about in Tulsa or taught in schools. So it's kind of this weird looming thing around a really comfortable middle-class suburban community. As a Tulsan, there was this weird darkness that was still looming. It wasn't talked about. It was deliberately covered up by the local government and press. The idea came from me as a jazz musician and a Tulsan, [coming from] a community with a jazz history with artists like Leon Redbone, and having an emotional reaction to what I learned.
So did you intend to create an entire album about the riots?
I had been developing pieces that were responses to things around the riot. Brian Haas and I started playing through stuff on melodica, and people loved the material. Where they lie in the piece is chronological. It's in baroque suite form, and once that was established, we had a framework to work around. The baroque suite form is what governs the time signatures.
So were you ever concerned with it being seen as a giant buzzkill?
I think the Suite comes from an optimistic place. it doesn't start and end with the riot. It's a celebration of what our generation and our parents' generation accomplished and where we have to go. The future -- that's on our generation and our struggle.
I appreciate your saying that "the record doesn't begin and end with the riots," and even though it certainly feels like looking forward, it's still feels really sad.
Yeah, it's tragic! The sadness is a byproduct of the subject matter. I don't think there was ever a point where I sat down and was like, "I wanna make this shit sadder!" I also felt like the band was really good at existing within the story line. The subject matter and events are like a tragic fairy tale, but it actually happened. There's not a main character or specific voice; it's the point of view of an onlooker through the band's lens. There are a lot of themes and characters that reappear. Screams and wails reoccur in different places.
There are sections of the record that sound so huge and orchestral. How did you get such a big sound?
There are nine people total on the album, and that's due to a few different things. I think the lap steel in the midst of the horn section is just a really cool relationship, and it makes things sound big in a different way. And another integral aspect to everything is the engineer and producer that we used, who are two Oklahoma guys: Chad Copelin, who has a badass studio in Norman, Oklahoma, and the producer Costa Stasinopoulos, who is Tulsa-based, a young guy who is total badass.
So are you playing selections from the Suite on the road?
Yes, in Denver we're playing with Josh Quinlan, a locally based saxophone player. We'll also be playing songs from Stay Gold, our album from last summer.
The prelude sounds like Duke Ellington under the direction of Tom Waits. From there, things go in all sorts of directions, but I kept hearing Aaron Copland as a leitmotif. Did you intend to evoke Copland to make it sound "American"?
I think the suite sounds very American. Ellington and Charles Mingus are like America's classical composers. To me, it doesn't get more American than Charles Mingus. It was a deliberate aesthetic time-travel piece. We were trying to take you from the past to the present to the future.
Do you think it's the job of a patriot to turn the lens on us? To take a good hard look at America?
Oh, yeah, "a true patriot questions our lying government": That's been one of our bumperstickers and mottos and mantras for a long time. Along those same lines, as an artist and as a composer; once we had amassed the material to do something different with it, or to rename the tunes and make them about something else, it all felt like the evilest shit. We really wanted to do the truth and do the story justice.
The last time I remember a jazz musician being ambitious in this way was Wynton Marsalis's oratorio "Blood on the Fields." Wynton received the Pulitzer for that work; are you guys ambitious in that same way? Aren't accolades and awards the best way to shed light?
Honestly, the scope of what we were doing was so large and continues to be, I don't think there's any place in my brain to think about things like that. Of course any of that would be great, and we would be proud, but it's not something that we actively said, "Hey, this is a great opportunity for us to win an award." It would be great!
What is the mission of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey?
Oh, man, I feel like it would just be good music. We take the music and the quality seriously. We want to make the best art. We want to make lasting experiences for people, and anything besides that is just a part of it all.