Ok I go out to this bar and I don’t know what to expect. A power trio. Young players. Great reviews. Melodica, lots of melodica. A sense of humor, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. No one is actually called Jacob Fred. Everyone is called Jacob Fred. Well, this band is great and I encourage you to buy their CD’s and try to see them live. Their music reminds me of three large animals racing through a forest – breaking trees and disturbing the scene, they come to party with ammunition. Listening to a CD of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is like experiencing a snapshot of their music because it is changing. They take ideas and develop them. They are not afraid to take chances and this keeps their gigs powerful & fresh. They play with dynamics & feeling. The drummer, Jason Smart, started the set off playing mallets. As a tune progresses Brian (keyboards) will start covering Michael Hendersontype bass lines on the Fender Rhodes while Reed Mathis (bass player) is playing lead lines, several octaves higher than a stock bass, that sound like …………. well check it out and you tell me. The relaxed interview takes place in the basement of a Mpls, MN bar while the first act plays upstairs. Brian Haas the leader & keyboard player in the band greets me as I enter the dungeon. Brain is full of positive energy. We quickly become melodica buddies and before we know it an intermittent cassette-recorder cooperates.
Steve- We got a band blasting upstairs and someone’s (Judy) going to try and transcribe this off a cassette. We’ll get something good out of it. We’ll make it work.
Conversation turns to melodicas (of course). Tape player finally kicks in
Brian- Well, you’ll see how I use mine, and then you can take a look at my Rhodes and tell me if you have any other stuff that would fit the way I’m doing it. So, the L34 series isn’t made anymore, period?
S- No, I have a couple left. They stopped making them, but those are about x times louder than any other melodica out there.
S- Yeah, in fact when John (Medeski) plays he doesn’t use any amplification, he’s just out there playing, and he’ll fill a hall with it.
B- You’ll have to turn me on to those. So it’s like four times as loud as the Victory?
S- It’s louder than the Victory, yeah, I don’t know about four times. But, four times louder than the Hohner.
S- Victory’s are good. You know, the Victory’s got a little thinner reed, so you can bend notes sometimes on them. You’ve got what, the 37-note.
B- Yeah, I believe so.
S- Which Hohner’s have you tried?
B- I went through two of those smaller Hohners that have the little rounded bottom, the curve on the bottom and the red backing. I think it was the Hohner 27.
S- OK, a little smaller keys than what you have now.
B- Exactly. I’ve been through four melodicas in three years.
S- That’s pretty good.
B- Is it really?
S- I mean, that’s not too bad. I haven’t seen how much you’re using it, how much you’re playing. They go out of tune sometimes, there is maintenance
B- Oh yeah, they always start to go out of tune toward the end. Are the Ls as sturdy as the green ones?
S- The Ls are sturdy, but they can go out of tune. They’re very well made, but they usually come to us out of tune — we get them out of tune. The Vs are in better tune when they come in. We’ve got bass ones too, bass melodicas.
S- You know, a low bass register. And I’ve got a soprano that’s ultra high.
B- Really, who makes the soprano?
S- That’s made in Italy. That’s the highest sounding melodica I’ve ever heard. It far exceeds the soprano range of any other brands.
B- I’d love to check that out. You’ll see how I use it – I mean, I use it as a lead voice with the entire rest of the band playing.
S- Oh, cool. Are you using the tube then?
B- Oh yeah.
S- If you ever need an extra tube let me know and we’ll get you one.
B- Cool, I probably could because, I mean, the tubes start to stink pretty bad after a while and I just started sanitizing them with lemon juice and tea tree oil. One time, my tube was so dirty one night I smelled it and, like after the gig my tongue was kind of stinging, and I smelled it and it smelled like a dirty sock and I realized like, oh wow, I’m obviously getting bacteria on my tongue, and getting little raised bumps and stuff. So, yeah, I eventually started sanitizing my hose, but toward the end there, on my last Victory, so, yeah, getting a spare hose would be hopeful..
S. no problem
S- Are you running an 88 Rhodes, or a 73?
S- You’ve got the top off, it looks like you’ve got a lot of effects. What kind of effects are you using on your Rhodes?
B- I’ve just got one of those old Boss, like 1989 PS2 pitch shifter and delays. That’s what’s on the far left. They don’t make it any more, I think now they make like a PS5, or something. And in the middle is just an old DOD flanger. And on the far right that big purple pedal is made by Line 6 and it’s their filter modular and it basically has like 20 different filters on it, and thousands of different ways you can program it. That’s why I keep it up there — I don’t really use it like a stomp box. I more just like tweak in effects while I’m playing and it’s kind of different every time.
S- Has your Rhodes been modified?
B- Oh yea, I’ve put like nine other Fender Rhodes pianos into that one Rhodes. I’ve totally developed my own kind of feel for it, my own placement of the pick ups, and where I have the tines raised. I’ve spend a lot of times tweaking that Rhodes. And my spare parts come from eight other Fender Rhodes.
S- Yeah, it was a great sound I heard when you were playing it.
B- Oh yeah, I mean my real number one instrument is the piano, you know, but for clubs like this, obviously I have to use the Rhodes. The tour that we’re gonna do in the spring, is gonna be only rooms with grand pianos. So in the spring I’ll be only using melodica and grand piano.
S- Cool. And are you processing the melodicas at all?
B- Slightly, just from behind the sound board. But like when I play acoustic piano, like we did two sets at Yoshi’s in San Francisco – probably the best jazz club on the West Coast. And a killer grand piano, you know, one of those 9-foot Steinway Ds, and I just do the same thing on the grand piano when I’m using the melodica as when I’m using my Rhodes. I just set it up on top, use the hose and do unison lines. You’ll see what I do, I mean I just do a wide variety of weird stuff with it. But I do a lot of Rhodes and melodica at the same time.
S- Cool. What albums or CDs of yours have melodica on them? Or do they all? You have what, six out now?
B-Seven albums out now.
B- The only albums that have melodica on it are “Self is Gone” which is our sixth album and “All is One Live in New York City” which is our seventh album. Have you heard “All is Won Live in New York City”?
S- I’ve heard cuts off your web site.
B- But those are probably like live cuts from the shows, right?
B- I’ll give you a copy of the album tonight. It’s a weird album. I’m glad that you’re coming to see us live, because if you listen to the album, you’ll know what the sounds are on it. I’m doing a lot of bass lines on the Rhodes and our bassist plays up high with lots of effects. We’ve been getting all these reviews in jazz magazines where they’re like “What’s Brian Haas?? doing on the Rhodes piano? We can’t figure it out – Brian Haas does this and does this..” and it’s all our bassist. It’s like I’m doing bass lines on that tune and all they talk about is me! It’s like – sometimes innovation is just lost. It’s a gradual process, you know? You’ll see tonight, our bassist is a total innovative genius. So I’m just glad you’re not listening to the album cold, you know, I’m glad you’re gonna hear us first and then listen to the album.
S- Yeah, that’s great.
B- It’ll make a lot more sense. I mean, we don’t even sound, you know we’ve improved. We’re all about constant evolution, you know, our biggest hero is John Coltrane. We’re all about pushing every night, make this different every night. You know, just basically practicing on stage every night, making it different every night. So we just sound tons different than the album, but, it has me using melodica in several places on it.
S- When did you first become exposed to the melodica?
B-Somebody gave me one. Actually, our first drummer is who exposed me to the melodica – Shawn Leighton. He gave me my first melodica, actually. And it had a weird kind of hose system of his own rigged up.
B- Yea, I’m glad you’re able to come out to a live show. I’m using the melodica even more now than I was on the album.
S- That’s great. We want to encourage people reading the interview to get out and see the show.
B- Yeah absolutely, I mean Jacob Fred sounds good on the album, but it’s somewhat confusing, as we’ve been able to tell in the reviews. Some people just think it’s incredibly innovative and brilliant, and some people are just like “I don’t understand what’s going on.” But you have to come see us live, you know, because the sounds that you’re hearing aren’t what you think they are.
S- Sure, I listened today on the web, and I was wondering, what’s doing this lead here, and now you’re explaining it was the bass. I’m going, “He must have the Rhodes split or something, because I’m hearing him comping.” But the lead sound, just playing Rhodes and melodica so this explains it. I mean, it was the same when I saw Weather Report live. I was curious what was happening and who was doing this. Sometimes I’d see Wayne Shorter playing parts I assumed Zawinul had played.
B- Absolutely. Where did you get to see Weather Report?
S- I’ve seen them about four times here in town.
B- Nice – so you’ve lived in Minneapolis for a while?
S- All my life.
B- Wow nice. Man I appreciate you always sending the melodicas so quickly, because when one breaks I’m always on tour, and I always get them like one or two gigs later. I really appreciate that. It’s become like an integral part of my sound – it’s such a beautiful sound.
S- Oh they’re great instruments.
B- And when the sound man knows how to EQ it, they just sound so beautiful. It’s a gorgeous instrument.
S- Do you find a lot of people, when you’re performing, not knowing what they are?
B- Oh yeah, man, people are so curious about it. And you wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve turned on to it because they’re always like “What’s that thing with the tube? Is that like the thing Frampton does? What do you do with that tube? What’s going on with that tube.” I can’t tell you just how many innocent bystanders in the audience end up coming up on stage and eventually playing my melodica. You know, because they’re just like so curious. It’s like “What? What’s going on? How are you doing that? Is that computer controlled? Is that MIDI?” So many people ask me if it’s MIDI, if it’s some kind of weird MIDI hose. And I always tell them the same thing. They say “What’s the background?” and I say “It’s a children’s toy.” You know, I mean I don’t know if that IS the background, but somebody told me years ago that the first melodicas were just these littlekind of crappy toys made by Hohner.
S- They started the ball rolling, yeah. But since then, lots of other countries are manufacturing them. And they’re much more prevalent in Asia and Europe than they are in the United States.
S- The United States closest ax is the recorder, but over in Europe they’re all using melodicas. So over there, it’s you know, there are hundreds of kids in their rooms playing.
B- Well man, like those loud ones that you were talking about?
S- Oh 34s, yeah.
B- Is it basically the same range as what I’m using?
S- Uh, 34s a 34-note, you’ve got a 37.
B- But it’s the same basic range as far as the tones?
S- Yes, exactly. I don’t know why. We’ve taken them apart to try to figure it out. But they’re just a loud melodica.
B- Sweet. Can I pick one up tomorrow?
S- Yeah, you gonna be in town?
B- Yeah, I’ve got a day off.
S- Yeah, drop by tomorrow, I’m gonna be around. I think I’ve got the day off tomorrow .
B- Beautiful. Like do you have an actual store here and all it sells is melodicas?
S- It’s a cyber store. I’m a keyboard player for a living, and the store is something that just exists in cyber space. We do Hammond organs & melodicas. If my store was a zoo we would only have dinosaurs & butterflies. But I’m happy to meet with you.
B- Cool. I mean, yeah, if it’s super loud. The only problem I ever have is that sometimes if the monitors suck I just can’t hear that one. You know, it gets lost in the drum kit. It gets lost in the frequency of the electric bass and the drum kit. Cause I’m playing it in a loud, electric setting – I might as well have the loudest melodica made.
S- Yeah, I mean in the electronic instrument.. If you’re competing in an acoustic realm, you know, the window is perceivably louder.
B- True. Well, yeah, we’re getting into a vibe where we’re able to do a lot more acoustic shows. Our bassist is just as good on an upright, and runs the upright through all the same pedals, and plays the upright way up high. And it sounds like there’s somebody rockin’ a violin or something.
B- And I do bass lines on the grand piano.
S- That’s cool. You’re background is classical?
B- Yeah, I’ve been playing since I was four years old.
B- Started with the Suzuki method when I was four, which is that whole ear training method pioneered by Soji Suzuki for violin. I started doing that when I was four and started playing jazz when I was 20.
S- Are your parents also musical?
B- No. They were disciplinarians. They made me practice every day from age 4 to 15 except for Christmas Day and my birthday. I was allowed to take two days off. Because they were worried that we were going to grow up without discipline. I think they’d been reading too many parenting books. Cause, you know, for between 10 and 11 years I practiced every day except Christmas Day and my birthday and my mom stayed on it. And then by 15, she was just burned out and she just couldn’t care less. She was just tired of fighting me.
S- What got you interested in jazz? Who were your first influences?
B- Man, it was just like hearing random, crazy stuff. You know, like being on vacation in New Orleans at a young age and hearing jazz in clubs, and jazz musicians and jazz pianists. Really I was always awed and kind of impressed and frightened by the intensity and the randomness. It was just weird little bits here and there. Like the Live in Japan recordings of John Coltrane. I mean, just like the ferociousness, like the primal intensity, the spiritual truth behind it just always gave me goosebumps. And it was like “This is my mission. This is what speaks to me.”
S- Have you seen McCoy Tyner or Elvin Jones.
B- Just on video, unfortunately. But, I’m a huge fan.
Other band members enter, introductions, etc.
B- Melodicas.com. That’s where I’ve gotten my last few melodicas – the Hohner and then my two last Victorys. I got that Hohner from you, too.
S- Which Hohner did you get?
B- The one in the red case. The little 27-key one that comes in the red case. Rich ordered that from you, too, on the internet. But that would’ve been 2-1/2 years ago.
S- You might want to try the 36, too, ’cause that’s a cool axe. The Hohner 36.
More interruptions as gig time is closing in.
B- Thanks for coming out. Did Gerber put you on the list?
S- Yes , thanks. This is great, supporting the cause.
B- Oh man, absolutely. People are so curious about the melodica. I’ve turned so many people on to it. It’s like, they love it ’cause as soon as they start messing with it, they feel like they can play it. They’re like “Wow man, this is something I could get into and learn about music.” I’ve just had a lot of people like play it and play it. And I’m like, “OK, come on, don’t get all your spit in my stuff.. Come on, give it back.” You know, people are just loving it. They’re not drunk, they’re just like “Whoah!”
S- Yeah, I find the same thing. (except sometimes drunk)
B- They just love it, man. It’s such an accessible instrument, but at the same time it can be a tool of virtuosity.
S- I’m trying to get Keyboard Magazine to do a big feature on it and they said “We’re just not getting the interest. Nobody’s calling and asking about it.” And I just said, “You’re not on the grass roots level of what’s going on, because everybody that I’m playing it for and that I know that’s playing it — everybody’s interested in it. You should get on this and talk about it — do an article about it.”
B- Totally! Talk about me and Medeski.
At this point the conversation ends and Brian goes upstairs and the show begins. A great 2 hours show happens. Conversation continues while band is tearing down.
S- Coltrane – You could hear that tonight, the energy, and it was just fantastic.
B- Oh, thank you.
S- And your left-hand bass dexterity. You know, people should know about that when they listen, ’cause you’re executing a lot of this with the left hand.
B- Yeah, I’ve had a lot of people – I’d say 75% of all the reviews we’ve been getting on jazz websites and jazz magazines, they think all my left hand stuff is the bass and guitar,
S- And they probably think the lead stuff he’s playing on bass guitar…
B- … is all me, through whacky pedals.
S- Well, we’ll set the record straight on this interview.
B- We’ve just been totally amazed.
S- Everything you did tonight was original, except I heard Monk’s Dream. And that was cool, ’cause you started playing that with just keyboards and drums, like Larry Young on the Unity side.
S- Where it was just him and Elvin Jones. I thought, wow, that’s wild.
B- Yeah, yeah. And I was doing the melody on the melodica and doing stride piano in the left hand.
S- Very cool. So, are you the composer for most of the compositions?
B- It’s pretty equal. Because our compositional styles are all pretty similar. Like, we all just kind of come in with little melodic morsels. Our approach is really related to Beethoven in some ways – it’s all theme and development. And that’s the same exact thing Ornette (Coleman) was doing, and Louis Armstrong did. And all the great musicians – -Franz Liszt. I mean it’s always been about theme and development. You know, taking a morsel and turning it into a story, turning it into a painting. You know, so all three of us just kind of compose in the same way. We just bring in little melodies or little ideas and we just expand upon them and expand upon them. It’s really different every night. That’s why a lot of times we’re looking quizically at each other, like “What are you doing?”
S- How would you say the melodica has affected your compositional style?
B- Man, it’s just helped me to like hear melodies happen slower and to hear melodies happen with more space. I think it’s impossible to play the melodica like you would a piano with full-size keys, so it’s like forcing you to hear sound in a whole different way. It’s forcing me to play with a lot more space and, like learn more about my own playing from playing the melodica. And, like, whoah – just playing these long melodies that are slow and sort of ethereal, you know it’s like I started doing on the melodica. When I got it, it was like “Whoah, this has been missing from my music, from my compositions, from my life. I mean, the melodica has changed the way I play Rhodes. I used to just not play with enough space, in my opinion. Everything was really busy and packed in. I was just trying to pack as much stuff in as possible but like ….
Reed the bass players jumps in the interview
Reed- For years, like ever since I met you, I’ve been telling you I wanted you to have like some instrument that sustains — so it would be like a non-attack. You know what I’m saying? Like a sustained voice to go with your percussive voice. And you got it. I was like, I don’t even know what. I mean a Korg or a Moog would sound totally cheesy – it just wouldn’t even fit. It’s too characterized. You know what I’m saying? I mean like, it’s already got a character in the ear. So the melodica is like perfect – perfect.
B- Don’t you think it’s changed my approach on the Rhodes and acoustic piano?
R- Oh, yeah, And I mean, it gets out your Beethoven with your voicing. You know what I’m saying? That’s the whole thing with the Beethoven symphonies -the melodies are constantly being passed from section to section. You know what I mean? And, like, Brian can incorporate that when he’s playing both at the same time. It’s like that’s a third voice, you know?
S- Yeah, it sounds beautiful _____ some of the guitar stuff you were doing, too.
R- Yeah, I can’t wait to hear the melodica and the cello together.
B- Yeah, we’re making a new album — our 8th album — in December and January. And I’m only gonna be on two different Steinway 9-foot Ds and melodica for the whole album. Reid’s gonna be on cello, upright bass, sitar, guitar. Yeah, we’re just gonna like get into a whole different thing than what we’ve gotten into on our albums. ‘Cause our albums are always just live to tape, and it’s always mostly the Rhodes. You know, on the last album there’s one piano track.
S- You did one album called, Live at Tokyo? (the band has never actually played, recorded or been in Tokyo)
B- Yeah, that’s our second one. Have you heard that?
S- No, I haven’t. But I had a question, if you ever went to Tokyo and did a live album, what would you call it? (Much Laughter)
B- Maybe “Back in Tokyo.” Something like that.
R-“Back in Tokyo for the Very First Time.” (Laughter)
B- Yeah, that’d be great. That’s a great idea. Back in Tokyo for the Very First Time
S- Well this is great. This was a fine interview. Thank you very much for your time.
B- Yeah, thanks for coming, man.
S- And we’ll do another one in the spring when you come back. A little continuation – and we’ll talk about more projects
B- Yeah! See ya tomorrow!
For more info on Brian and the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey goto www.JFJO.com