An Interview: Chris Combs (JFJO)
by Greg Molitor
Recently, Chris Combs (lap steel, guitar) of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to give an interview with Music Marauders!
Chris Combs is one of the brightest young stars in the American Jazz scene. An integral piece in the redefinition of Jacob Fred’s constantly changing sound, he also contributes his talents to other Tulsa-based musical projects in his free time.
Last week, Combs allowed contributor Greg Molitor to pick his brain about reworking Beethoven, touring, improvisation, and covering Lady Gaga. A man who clearly enjoys his craft, Combs passion for life and music shines during his twenty minute conversation with Molitor. Any lover of roots music, without question, should be familiar with this innovative, inspiring musician.
Greg: What initially sparked your interest in music?
Chris: I would say a combination of, in a weird way, both of my grandfathers. One of my grandfathers was a really great guitar and mandolin player that played Missouri-hill folk and country. My other grandfather is from New Orleans so I heard both jazz and country music early.
Chris: And I think through that, you know, through my family’s connection with New Orleans and the Hills and two different directions, those two cultures have always been present.
Greg: Yeah, both those places are huge culturally.
Chris: Yeah, it’s been a big influence for sure. That was kind of the first thing that sparked it. You have the culture of the jazz cities like New Orleans and New York and then you have the culture of the opposite of that. I think that was a lot of the initial fascination.
Greg: Very cool, man. When did you pick up your first instrument?
Chris: I played guitar on and off starting probably when I was in 4th grade. I was primarily a guitar player until about two years ago, which is when I did my first tour with Jacob Fred, when I actually learned my first few tunes on lap steel to tour a part of Lil’ Tae Rides Again which is what the band was touring at the time. Since then, just kind of one-by-one, the lap steel has taken over. I’ve played guitar for a very long time and the lap steel for just over two years now.
Greg: Before we discuss Jacob Fred, what other projects have you been involved with?
Chris: There’s a really great music scene here in Tulsa, (there’s) a lot of really cool things happening. I play with this really great singer/songwriter named Jesse Aycock. I also play with another Tulsa-based group named Gogo Plumbay which is with the drummer from Jacob Fred, Josh Raymer, and horns… the bigger band idea. I also work with a variety of studios, teaching studios and recording studios.
Greg: Right on, man. When did you first meet Brian Haas and how did you meet him?
Chris: You know, being from Tulsa, I grew up listening to Jacob Fred and they were my favorite band for a long time actually (laughs), all through high school. Brian, Reed (Mathis), and Jason (Smart)…that was the trio that I grew up with. I saw the band for the first time…I don’t know…I’m trying to think who it all was. It was Matt Edwards, Matt Leland…I don’t know. It was pretty early the first time I saw them.
Greg: So it was the bigger Jacob Fred band?
Chris: Yeah, it was the old-school big band. Brian and Reed were both in and out of Tulsa, you know, and were huge heroes to all of us and continue to be. Slowly as we got older I started seeing at Haas at jams and stuff and eventually met him. I’m really old friends with Josh Raymer who is the drummer, and through that connection, we established a closer relationship. But it’s basically just through playing music in Tulsa.
Greg: It seems like you have a really tight-knit community down there.
Chris: Yeah it’s interesting. It’s small but it’s powerful and creative, and there are a lot of people doing different things musically, you know? It’s a really special time to be here and the city has a really interesting history with the musical and the cultural. I think that lends itself well to ‘the good’.
Greg: Absolutely. What does it mean to you to be able to contribute to so much to a band that you’ve loved and have put so much passion into?
Chris: Man, it’s really a fucking dream come true in a lot of ways.
Greg: (laughs) I bet.
Chris: I’ve been with the band for two years now and I’ve learned so much. Haas has been doing this for 16 years and there’s not a lot of people like him on Earth first of all (laughs) and also in the music industry. There just aren’t a lot of people who’ve done it as good and as long as he has, and he’s always rolled with a high deal of integrity with everything the band has done. That’s always been something I’ve been aware of, you know? I’ve always been aware of how proper JFJO rolled. From the material to the execution to who they are as people, you know, it’s been a fully inspirational for me and the majority of the music scene here in Tulsa (laughs). For me to get the opportunity to step up and learn from that and grow with that, it’s been such a pleasure.
Greg: That’s great, man.
Chris: Yeah. It’s a challenge and the most rewarding shit ever.
Greg: That’s so awesome to hear, man. Let’s talk about performance for a bit. Most people that are familiar with jazz realize that improvisation is a big part of the music. How much do you guys improvise during live performances? Is the band trying to continually trying to push itself each night?
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. It’s kind of the name of the game with this band. If nothing else, the trademark of the band has been free group improvisation. The way that we’ve been framing that recently is, I mean the free ensemble improvisation, happens in different areas of the tunes. A lot of times the actual movements through the sections change night to night. It’s all open and the tunes are composed and conceived in a way that everything is malleable, you know?
Greg: Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Chris: It’s never the same. There’s an A and a B and how we get there, we just don’t know! And we prefer not to know! (laughs)
Greg: Absolutely. That’s the whole point of it, right? If you’re not having fun while you’re playing, what’s the point?
Chris: Yeah, right. And I think, you know, some of our favorite groups in terms of improvisation like the late Miles (Davis), the late-sixties Miles stuff and the Wayne Shorter Quartet…that’s some of our favorite music. Those are bands that are really good at getting lost in some way.
Greg: Just flying by the seat of their pants?
Chris: Yeah, exactly! We enjoy that same excitement in totally losing the song form and creating sometime for that moment that is kind of framed by a tune on the album.
Greg: Do you feel like that way of making music is somewhat lost today in some aspects?
Chris: I hope not!
Chris: That element has moved into a lot of different places also. There are still people pushing on the jazz front, just free improvisation, you know? It’s also prevalent in bands like Hella.
Greg: Oh yeah.
Chris: You know? Just avant noise-duo bands…a lot of that shit is free and has a lot in common with Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman.
Greg: For sure.
Chris: And also bands like Wilco. The presence of creating something in the moment, the presence of that improvisatory spirit has changed and continues to change and moves through different veins in music. I hope that element, that spark of human whatever… I hope it remains. It’s my favorite.
Greg: Well, you guys are doing a great job of making sure people still have an opportunity to see something that’s free and has that human spirit. I really appreciate that from you guys.
Chris: Cheers man! Thank you!
Greg: You’ve played in a lot of different settings with Jacob Fred. You’ve played in jazz halls, rock venues, and just about every place in-between. If you had to pick an ideal place to place a show, what would it be like?
Chris: Oh man. I don’t know!
Chris: That’s one of the coolest things about the band. On this last tour, we did the Grog Shop in Cleveland which is kind of a dirty rock club to the Rochester International Jazz Festival, which was our next show. It’s so diverse. I really love all of it. It’s fun to roll in and figure out how to do our thing regardless. We basically play the same way.
Chris: Sometimes Brian is on a Rhodes and sometimes he’s on a piano, but I think band rolls in ready to do our thing. We always have reverence and respect for the people that we’re making music with in the audience, you know? It’s fun to roll through these different settings and see how people respond. They never respond how you think they will. It’s always positive!
Chris: I don’t know how else to describe it…diversity!
Greg: No, that was a great answer, man!
Greg: So last month Jacob Fred played a unique show, Ludwig (a reworking of the Beethoven’s 3rd and 6th Symphonies), at the Oklahoma Mozart in Bartlesville. For those who aren’t familiar, could you explain a bit of history behind that project?
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. The band started worked on it over two years ago in a loose form and then it was rearranged by Noam Fiangold, a brilliant young composer who actually is from Tulsa. So it was the quartet and a fifty-piece orchestra…pretty wild!
Chris: It was an intense amount of work. Brian explains it preparing for a boxing match where you train, train, train, and keep getting up (laughs). It was wild. It was the biggest piece of work any of us had ever worked on and the most rewarding. It was an amazing experience. It changed me…I think it changed all of us. You know, just working on something that’s so absolutely brilliant, working on that piece of music I think permanently reprogrammed our brains.
Chris: In a really cool way, you know? So much modern harmony and modern musicality comes straight from that. It’s the root of so many things. To get in there and have that shit pounded into us was just a really wonderful experience from beginning to end.
Greg: So awesome, man.
Greg: I’d like to hear that show at some point. I’m interested to hear how it panned out.
Chris: Yeah, we’ll be releasing parts of it.
Greg: How was the overall reaction to Ludwig? Did people dig it?
Chris: Yeah, people dug it. We really stepped out and put ourselves on the line, but people loved it! After the performance, we got to interact with all kinds of people who would never come to Jacob Fred show. You know, people in their sixties and seventies, kids, Jacob Fred fans…age wise it really ran the entire the gamut and it was so much fun to share that experience with so many people.
Greg: It’s an amazing way to open people up to something totally new.
Chris: Yeah! It brings peoples together that normally wouldn’t be together. You look out into the audience and you see a row of twenty-five girls and then you see a couple in their sixties or seventies and their family, then you see a bunch of seventeen year-olds or something like that. That’s how the whole theater was. It was totally packed…it was awesome! We’ve got great reviews so far and we’re looking forward to sharing it more.
Greg: Congratulations, man. That’s awesome.
Chris: Thank you brother.
Greg: I noticed you added some fall tour dates leading up to your New Year’s Eve show at Cain’s Ballroom. I’ve known musicians to have mixed feelings about being on the road. What are your thoughts about it? Is touring something you get excited about?
Chris: Oh absolutely. I love the hell out of it! I feel like it changes me every time, in a good way, and I come back a better person. Yeah, I love it. I don’t really have much more to say than that, I guess. (laughs)
Greg: That’s cool, man! (laughs)
Chris: I feel like we do it well, you know? The band, overall, is very health conscious and is super-clean. I feel like the operations of it all are run very well. It very rarely feels like a taxing experience, and we do a lot of dates!
Greg: You know, if you guys are pushing yourselves every night to make each performance the best it can possibly be, you have to keep yourself levelheaded and prepared to give the best show possible.
Chris: Yeah, we take the work of it very seriously and the health of it very seriously. I think everybody wants to be able to do it for a really long time. So yeah, it’s always been pleasurable experience. I’ve loved it from the very beginning. There’s a strange set of skills you develop, and if you love it, you love it and you’ll be doing it for the rest of your life, hopefully. (laughs)
Greg: Very cool. I have one more question for you, Chris.
Greg: It’s regarding the previously mentioned New Year’s Eve show at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. Jacob Fred has spent previous New Year’s interpreting contemporary pop music, and this New Year’s is no different with you covering the songs of Madonna, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga.
Greg: So the question begs to be asked, why interpret the music of these three pop singers?
Chris: We thought it would be a blast, man.
Chris: (laughs) We thought it sounded awesome. We tried to think of something we would like to go see on New Year’s Eve with our girls, you know? It just sounds like fun.
Greg: Aw, yeah!
Chris: We have three different really amazing, genius local vocalists. Annie Ellicott, who’s actually done a tour with Jacob Fred, she’s a really great jazz singer; Travis Fite, who is an amazing male vocalist; and Costa Stasinopoulis, who is a brilliant producer/singer and is a from a really great band called Dead Sea Choir, so we’ll be throwing down with them. And the Cain Ballroom is amazing! It’s been around forever, the history behind it is brilliant, and it’s going to be a blast!
Greg: Awesome, man!
Chris: That’s really the only motivation! For a show like that, you know, it’s just to sit back and think,” What would be fun? What would we want to go see some of our friends do?” That’s where it came from.
Greg: Yeah, man. I’d love to be able to get out and check it out. I don’t know what I’m doing for New Year’s yet…
Greg: I’m leaving my calendar open so we’ll see what happens.
Chris: (laughs) Right on, man.
Greg: Thanks a lot for interview, Chris. I really appreciate it, brother.
Chris: Thank you, man. My pleasure.