Brian Haas on How Not To Be a MusicBot

Brian Haas is founder and helmsman of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey—a group that has consistently explored both inside and outside the jazz idiom to deliver a unique take on American instrumentalism.

 Putting the music of Brian Haas into words is like trying to describe a chameleon in a crayon factory. Haas is founder and helmsman of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey—a group that has consistently explored both inside and outside the jazz idiom to deliver a unique take on American instrumentalism. Throughout many iterations of the group, Haas as remained the constant, playing piano or Rhodes with a melodica close at hand. Currently the band has pared down to a trio with Chris Combs on guitar and Josh Raymer on drums. Instead of filling the revolving bass slot, Haas took on keyboard bass. Haas also recently finished up a solo tour supporting his latest solo album Frames, which features Matt Chamberlain on drums and some of Haas’ tightest compositions yet.

You had spoken about writing Frames in a different key. . . .

Frames is one piece in all 12 keys. I started with C natural and ended with B natural. All 12 pieces are minor and major and yet neither minor nor major—I still can’t tell, can you? I got the basic concept after Matt Chamberlain confirmed the recording session with me. I wanted brand new compositions that completely played on his strengths in the studio. I also wanted material that would be completely different from anything that I have done before so I thought of each piece as an exercise in each key. I also wanted to try a more composed approach—to write a record that saved the improvisation for the live show.

At what point did you decide on the piano-drum configuration?

I wasn’t totally sold on the piano-drum configuration until I confirmed Matt. When he and I were talking about it, I gradually realized the music had to be based around the two of us. I confirmed Matt around the end of November 2012 and I wrote the album during December.

How much direction did you give Matt versus just seeing what he came up with?

Matt received very little instruction from me at the two-day session I had with him. He’s a true master, able to turn musical skeletons into sentient beings. Being in the studio with him was effortless, but learning this music after I wrote it wasn’t! Much of it fits strangely under the hand. The album also turned out very different than I thought that it would. I initially wanted a more electronic thing but it turned out to be mostly piano and drums.

Can you quantify what elements of your playing constitute your style, common to both JFJO and Frames?

Many people have said that I have my own style and I’m grateful for that. But I want my style to change a little bit every day. I have always been equally influenced by all genres of music, especially jazz and classical. Two of my favorite combos are Coltrane and Bartok, and Monk and Prokofiev, because those cats remind me of each other. I love dichotomies. I love finding things in common in supposed opposites rather than finding differences. That’s my style in a nutshell. I wrote Frames to force a style change within myself as a composer and a pianist. Frames has definitely helped me understand what I want to do next with JFJO.

While your early period felt more like jazz, the newer band has more of an Americana feel, most likely due to the slide guitar work of Chris Combs. Is there an obvious trajectory?

Change is the only constant. Jacob Fred is my jazz baby that I started as an eight-piece collective in 1994. We’re now back to a trio with me doing all the bass on a Moog Minitaur and Sub Phatty. This new lineup is my favorite and the most musical—the deepest thing I have ever been a part of. Combs and Raymer grew up listening to JFJO from middle school on and they know the dialect. Lately Combs has been playing just as much electric guitar as lap steel, and I’d say we have more of a post-rock meets J. Dilla thing happening. Or maybe rock ‘n’ roll meets Flying Lotus? I don’t know what to call it, but it rocks, yet has that Coltrane thing happening that we’ve always loved.

Does the physicality of the piano that affects your melodic and harmonic sensibilities?

The 88 keys have always been the entire 50-piece orchestra to me. Every instrument in the history of mankind is somehow represented within the piano if you have a good imagination. I’ve been playing since I was two and I’m more comfy sitting at a piano than anywhere. What affects me more than the piano in general is the uniqueness of each instrument and each room. Or what I’m thinking about that day, how my heart feels, how recently I’ve done yoga, the humans listening to me in the room, and the particular energetic buzz of the place I happen to be that night.

When you’re improvising, do you consciously think about melodic construction in the moment?

No. It’s totally blind. I’m totally not there. Sometimes I have the sensation that I need to restrain myself, and one of the of the only things that pops into my mind is to relax. And then I relax, and then I forget again. Or I’ll get the sensation that something needs to grow so that I’ll change it. I don’t know if it’s thoughts—it’s more like feelings. Not “thinking” is super important. You have to think to get to where you don’t think. If you’re thinking while you’re playing, you aren’t performing—you’re practicing in front of people. Which is fine, but I don’t do that. The end goal is to be able to just sit down and go. The physical and mental stuff is for the woodshed.

What do you recommend up and coming piano players do to enhance their evolution and develop their own voice and style?

Great question. Find your own “music theory.” Invent your own voice. Don’t let music school turn you into one more “MusicBot 4,000.” Instead, go into the woods and be alone with your thoughts or sit on a log by a stream and mediate—whatever it takes to get yourself out of your routine. I think that “jazz school” has created a generation of musicians who play licks really well but mostly don’t say anything new or convincing or spiritual or fun. I’m so exhausted with the new young lion pianists. They mostly play derivative, fast B.S. that I find unlistenable, and it all sounds like the same thing: no balls, no risk, no swing, no feel, nothing psychedelic happening at all. Have all these young jazz-bots never listened to Coltrane or Hendrix? The cats that have something to say on the piano or any instrument are those who create their own way or road to get there.

How can you create your own voice on an instrument when you take the same boring-ass jazz school road that everybody else does? You can’t! I think the worst thing that ever happened to the jazz art form is over-schooling. To play jazz, you must live jazz everyday. Real jazz should be risky every second, not pedantic and safe. Playing licks and running scales is not playing jazz. So you can transcribe Herbie—who can’t and who cares?

You certainly had a good deal of formal music education, though. Did it help or hinder you, and did your experience figure into your current, critical view of music school?

Well, my music education was unique. I started in the Suzuki classical method at age four and faked it entirely by ear until age 16 when I was forced to learn to read music. I got a full ride to college for classical music and studied classical composition and piano. I got mad and switched to jazz at 19 with no clue what I was doing. I started gigging with JFJO after I’d been playing jazz for only a couple of weeks! Between the ages of 19 and 21, I drove to the North Side of Tulsa many mornings before class and woke up a genius named George Dennie, who used to play with the Brecker Brothers. I begged him to play four hands with me.

So yes, I had some formal training, which I think can be important for some people and unimportant for others. My training personally gave me as much to unlearn as it gave me great starting points for learning—probably 50/50. I believe the importance of music education, like all expensive “formal learning,” has been overemphasized to the middle class by people who are good at selling and marketing their thing, which is good for all the colleges and universities, obviously. It all depends on the person, but a lot of cats are all starting to sound the same, while a lot of other cats--who also went to music school—don’t sound like robots and are really innovating. Again, the effect of music school is all about the individual. Just make sure you keep and open mind and acknowledge that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.