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Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey - 'Worker'

J.D. Swerzenski
Staff Writer

Full disclosure, I unabashedly loved The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s last record, 2012’s Race Riot Suite. That release, which saw the four-piece trace the history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots over a 70-minute, carefully arranged musical time-capsule, was as bold as statement as they came in jazz that year, especially coming from a 20-year veteran band so often tagged as a jam band.

Summoning the focus, passion and gumption to pull off a record that ambitious likely wore on JFJO; at least that’s the impression one gets after a run through the band’s latest effort, the timidly titled Worker. It proves a smaller record in almost every sense. The core band--founder Brian Haas at piano, keyboards and synths; Chris Combs at guitar; Josh Raymer at the drums--recently reduced to a trio, a diminishment made even more stark when compared to the horn line and other instrumental flourishes that further augmented Race Riot. But more so than their reduced roster, JFJO just don’t seem driven to anything big on Worker. Its 11-tracks, totaling just over a half hour, seem content to just vamp along. Granted, those vamps are often killer: "Say Nothing" and "Better Living Through Collective Spirituality" spring to mind. But the lasting effect is...well, there really isn’t one.

It’s worth noting that the JFJO of Race Riot was, after all, not really the JFJO as it has existed for the past couple decades. Worker sees the band moving back to its wheelhouse, with keyboardist and founder Haas reassuming his role in the forefront, after ceding a good bit of control to Combs, who arranged all and wrote most of Race Riot. Hearing Haas turns out to be the biggest pleasure of Worker, his keyboard textures falling into the acid washed future sounds realm of Medeski, Martin and Wood or The Bad Plus’ early 2000s output.

However regarding the album as a whole, a better reference point however might be Brad Mehldau. After painstakingly crafting the most epic record of his career, the symphonic two-disc Highway Rider, Mehldau has largely contented himself with trio and solo records. These post-Highway Rider works range from good to great. But none have reached the heights of his 2010 opus, largely because they don’t aspire to. For JFJO, the transition back to their comfort zone on Worker feels like the beginnings of a similar narrative, and true to the arc, it’s resulted in a good-not-great album. While the thought in not trying to one-up themselves with something grander than Race Riot understandable, these guys proved they can do amazing things with big, ambitious ideas. So yes, Worker feels like a bit of a come-down. None of that’ll stop me from spinning it in the background for the next few weeks. But I’ll still be holding out for something bigger, brasher and bolder from the band in the near future.

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's Worker is out now on the Royal Potato Family label. It's available at iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.