Last time Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey appeared at the RIJF, it was obvious the band members were excellent musicians, but the set didn't impress me as anything special. Sunday night at Xerox Auditorium the group rose to a higher level. Aside from some personnel changes, JFJO, which hails from Tulsa, OK, recently recorded an ambitious concept album, consisting of music inspired by the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Playing with a purpose, the group was superb.
"Race Riot Suite," by lap-steel guitarist Chris Combs, consists of 12 parts, all musical chapters in the race-riot narrative. All that pianist (and founding member of the group) Brian Haas said at the start of the show was that in 1921 Tulsa had the wealthiest African-American community in America, and in one day it was burned down. The group then proceeded to play the entire album. The suite is a tone poem of sorts, a soundscape of the community, the horror, and the aftermath with cultural references and plenty of chaos, convulsion, and turbulence.
Musically, there was not a dull second. Traditional-sounding jazz was employed in a historical context; the expressive flexibility of the music used in the storytelling, and, in this context, free jazz was enlisted to represent literal chaos. The bassist, drummer, and Combs were all outstanding for their versatility, expressiveness and endurance.
Mark Southerland was remarkable on tenor sax and an invented instrument with the head of a sax, the tail of a trumpet, and a hose in between. He muted it to guttural effect and twirled it in the air like a lasso as he walked into the audience. And Hass was a virtuosic whirlwind at the piano, using the instrument as an expressive, percussive vehicle for this extraordinary ride.
It was a great night for musicians with concepts. Ninety Miles at Kilbourn Hall consisted of three stars -- vibraphonist/marimbist Stefon Harris, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and saxophonist David Sánchez -- who also decided to explore new territory. The name of the group refers to the distance from Florida to Cuba, and the purpose of the project is to indulge in the musical legacy of Cuba.
While an album of the same name was recorded in Havana with Cuban musicians, only one of the musicians on stage -- the percussionist -- was Cuban. But, aside from Payton and Harris, all of the others were from Latin-American countries and the feel of the set was decidedly Afro-Cuban. All three of the leaders had ample opportunity to stretch out on inventive solos, with Harris displaying unbelievable technique playing marimba and vibraphone at the same time at mallet-blurring speeds.
I also caught the Scottish group Breach at ChristChurch, which turned out not to be the best venue for this electronic trio. Because of the church's excellent acoustics, amplified sound doesn't work well and it was sometimes difficult to balance the electric guitar, B-3 organ, and drums.
When the sound was not straining, Breach's strength was apparent, as evidenced by its performance of organist Paul Harrison's "The City From The Window." Guitarist Graeme Stephen began showcasing his electronic arsenal in a solo live and looped. Then Harrison came in on the B-3, which was perhaps the original "special effects" instrument used in jazz. All this time drummer Chris Wallace was building an undercurrent until his driving rhythm made its way to the front and became, in a way, the melody riding above the guitar and organ patterns.
Monday looks to me like the night of the trumpet. That's because the Terence Blanchard Quintet is playing at Kilbourn Hall and Nicholas Payton is at the Xerox Auditorium. They are two of the greatest trumpet players in the world and I'll be there, and there.
In between -- if I can get in -- I'll check out Eldar at the (in this case) way-too-small Hatch Recital Hall. Better get there really early for this one.