For musicians, the Covid-19 pandemic led to numerous artistic endeavors that would not have seen the light of day. From EPs to artwork, musicians had the time to finish projects that had been on the back burner. None of those projects compare in depth and quality to what Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (JFJO) founding member Reed Mathis created.
Mathis, the band’s bassist/unofficial archivist during his 15-year run from 1994 –2009, compiled a six-album JFJO release that covers both studio and live recordings from the band’s apex years 2005-2009. It includes “Winterwood,” the finally-completed last album with Mathis in the band, and four live albums that showcase the multiple approaches the band took towards their music during that span.
To truly understand the story, there’s one thing that’s certain: this was a passion project for Mathis. The motivation for the countless hours he spent putting the collection together is simple – he wanted it to exist. It wasn’t about money, or ego; it was about making the music available.
The material for these releases had been sitting in a storage unit for over a decade, unidentifiable to anyone but Mathis.
Mathis begins, “My motivation was, ‘what if I’m hit by a bus tomorrow?’ All these recordings exist on my hard drive in folders named weird shit. If I was yanked out of the picture, nobody would know where to look. I was like if this musical story is going to be told, it’s me and the time is now.”
He continues, “I’m it. I’m the only one who can get this done. I may be the only one who gives a shit, but I need to have proof in the physical world that we were that good at one point.”
Mathis is spot on in his assessment of the band during that period. The music on the releases – just like the band at the time – covered a wide variety of styles, from piano-driven improv to jazz standards. The band had come a long way since they crammed into a van in 1995 to craft their chops on a seemingly-unending tour.
If you look at JFJO during the Mathis years there is one glaring constant: new band members – over the years, the number is somewhere around 16. However, Mathis and fellow Tulsa native and pianist Brian Haas were the foundation of JFJO from day one. Their classically-trained background set the standard for their musical approach.
As the band set out in the mid to late 90s, Mathis was all in. His life was JFJO, and his home was literally the tour van, which with horns and percussionists in the mix, might sleep an uncomfortable eight at times.
With a van full of musical energy wanting to be unleashed, Haas acted as the booking agent. He got a list of every venue that pals Medeski, Martin, and Wood played and called to try and book JFJO. The strategy worked, and the band found itself crisscrossing the United States.
As the miles piled on and the band whittled down to four, they became more focused on what they wanted to put out. The classical music background remained the band’s base, but they wanted to continually shake things up.
Despite constant touring, JFJO managed to crank out new releases regularly, especially as they wandered into what Mathis calls their “apex years.” While the studio material was good, anyone wanting the true experience needed to see the band live, where most of the archival release comes from.
“We had become a lot more functional than we had been for the first decade. The songwriting was covering practical issues, and we were becoming mature about the entire process,” Mathis recalls.
“We were like, let’s get down to business here.” He adds, “We wanted to address the needs of the people buying tickets to our shows. Once we cracked that code, we became so prolific and started writing and recording a lot more stuff than we could release.”
In 2008, the band headed to the Ozarks to record ”Winterwood.” The music created in those sessions was some of the best in the band’s history, but after over a decade together, Mathis and Haas were ready for a break from each other.
According to Haas, “It’s simple, obvious stuff. Reed and I didn’t have any drama. We were tired of being around and playing with one another. He wasn’t fired and he didn’t leave. Zero drama, zero discussions. It was a mutual thing we communicated to each other on the same day.”
Mathis has a similar take on the breakup, explaining “We were in a situation that had no boundaries. We literally lived in a van for ten years. There was never any separation between us. That’s a fully unsustainable way to have a relationship.”
With Mathis moving on to other ventures, JFJO put several rough mixes from the “Winterwood” sessions on their website, mixes the producer in Mathis would have never released. The tracks were taken down after a couple of weeks in 2009, with no plans to ever see the light of day.
When the world shut down in 2020, Mathis realized this was finally his chance to put together all of the JFJO projects he needed to get out of his system, but there was one glaring problem: Mathis was not a member of the band, and had not had much of a relationship with JFJO since he left. Mathis chose the “act now, ask for forgiveness later” approach and started putting the project together.
He explains “I was afraid if I talked to any of the guys in the band about it, they would be like ‘dude, don’t. Why are you messing with the past?‘ I didn’t want any of those conversations to happen before the music was produced. So, I just started and spent a month editing and pre-mixing everything on my laptop. Once that was ready to cook, I went to my friend’s studio, put everything through his engineering rig and we made it delicious and magical.”
By September of 2020, Mathis had the music to the point where he was ready to let the cat out of the bag.
“I sent it to Brian and Kevin Calabro (Royal Potato Family),” Mathis says. ”I was like, ‘hey guys, I did a thing – check it out.‘ It was already mastered and as good as I wanted it to be. I just didn’t want them to say no.”
Next, the hard part…waiting to see if his efforts were in vain.
“I didn’t hear back for a while. Then I got some texts from Brian, who had been listening and having his mind blown,” Mathis proudly states. ”Brian was really moved by the recordings. I asked him if it’s something that should be released to the public, and he said absolutely.”
With a green light from Haas, Mathis took a quick detour before getting the new JFJO music to the public: he made a video documenting the project’s process. Mathis used a familiar technique to tell Haas about the video.
“I went through about seven drafts. The first was 45 minutes, but I got it down to 26,“ Mathis states. ”Also, I didn’t want to tell Brian about the video until it was done. I worked on it for a month and a half before sending it to Brian. He was like holy shit. None of us had seen those pictures in a long time. We never looked at what we’d done before. To zoom out after 15 years and look at what we caused from Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s amazing what we pulled off.”
Along with the “Winterwood” album, the release includes ”Winterwood Revealed,” which features live versions, piano versions, and other mixes of the “Winterwood” content. “The Spark That Bled” is a full live album based primarily around cover songs JFJO added to their set in 2005, a modern, spacey, in-your-face-sounding jazz experience.
“Nine Improvisations” is also a window into 2005 JFJO. To shake things up, the band would begin each concert with an improvisational jam and take it from there. “Speak No Evil” is a lighter acoustic piano-driven live album with a lot of material from the band’s 2006 European run. Lastly, “Lil Tae Rides Again (Expanded Edition)” finds Mathis reworking the album cuts and creating mashups from the live material from the 2008 tour.
Mathis gives plenty of credit to band’s soundman from 2003 to 2006, Jason Priesman, for a lot of the effects and sounds that were part of each live show during his run. “Those effects weren’t added by me. He was doing that in real time. He was almost a fourth band member. The way to get the best work out of someone is to not tell them how to do it. Let them do what naturally comes to them.”
While there was an overabundance of live music to choose from for these releases, Mathis did come across some outstanding takes that didn’t meet his standards. He adds, “There were three tunes I was heartbroken we couldn’t include. We tried multiple days in the studio to get them there. Ultimately, I realized these were beyond saving, which sucked, because they were great recordings.”
On whether he met his goals for this project, Mathis states, “No matter what happens going forward, those last few years in JFJO are some of the finest things I’ve done. I owed it to my life choices to get it out.
”No matter what happens to my relationship with Haas going forward, this art should be listenable in some location other than my bedroom. Not having this music out there was a crime I needed to rectify,” Mathis says.
”Our fans had a deep significance with this music, so if there are only 3000 people breathing air that give a shit, those 3000 people deserve these recordings.”