Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was born in Tulsa, Okla., but it is becoming an ensemble with a strong Kansas City flavor.
Two years ago, Jeff Harshbarger, one of Kansas City’s more eminent jazz bassists, became a member of Jacob Fred. Late last year, the quartet expanded to a quintet when it officially added as its resident saxophonist Mark Southerland, whose music resumé in Kansas City includes experimental ensembles such as Snuff Jazz, the Malachy Papers and TJ Dovebelly.
“We are officially a quintet now, with two members from Kansas City,” said Brian Haas, who founded Jacob Fred in 1994. “This has become my favorite lineup.”
Haas and Southerland first met in 1996 or ’97 — “we can’t quite figure out which,” Haas said — when Jacob Fred stayed around an extra day after a gig in Lawrence so Hass could see the Malachy Papers perform at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club.
“I’d listened to the Malachy Papers on a bootleg recording,” Haas said. “The language of Jacob Fred was kind of built up from the Malachy Papers. And I was a big fan of Mike Dillon (also in the Malachys). I’d seen him in Tulsa a few times with Billygoat and Hairy Apes BMX.”
After the Davey’s Uptown show, Haas introduced himself to Southerland and Haas expressed his admiration. The two have been friends and collaborators since. In 1999, Southerland and Dillon went to Chicago to contribute to the recording of the Jacob Fred album “Self is Gone.”
“Our paths have crossed a lot since then,” Southerland said. “We’ve shared many bills. Malachy Papers opened for Jacob Fred several times. Brian is on a Snuff Jazz recording that will come out soon, with Bill McKemy and Arnie Young.”
And in November 2009, Haas played the role of toastmaster for Southerland’s multimedia installation “Moon Bears & Sister Wives,” presented by the Urban Culture Project and the Charlotte Street Foundation. That’s where Southerland introduced Haas to Harshbarger, who would join Jacob Fred in April 2010.
In 2011, Jacob Fred started recording “Race Riot Suite” about the Tulsa riot in 1921. Chris Combs, the band’s lap steel guitarist, composed “Race Riot,” including the horn parts. Southerland was enlisted to play on the album with other eminent horn players, including Steven Bernstein and Peter Apfelbaum.
“Mark was the first horn player we called,” Haas said. “Chris Combs wrote each part for each guest horn in a specific way, much like (Charles) Mingus did.”
Southerland became part of the band for the “Race Riot” tour. In November, toward the end of a two-month stretch of shows, Southerland officially became a permanent member of the band.
“I’d told Mark for years that as soon as we could afford it, I wanted him in the band,” Haas said. “It was a really natural progression. His joining has been a long time coming.”
Hass had effusive praise for Southerland.
“He is one of my favorite (tenor sax) players on Earth,” he said. “No one sounds like him. Every solo is thoughtful. Every note is carefully chosen. He never just runs licks. He makes every solo special. He’s like a great storyteller. He has great technique but he never relies on just technique. So many cats get on stage, run licks and go home. Southie is always sweating his ass off, even if the room is cold, because he works so hard for each note. He’s so precise. And his tone is so sweet. It’s almost reminiscent of Lester Young, but his concepts are reminiscent of Ornette Coleman. Yet he’s never derivative.”
Southerland and Harshbarger give his band a balance that it hadn’t had before, Haas said.
“The other two guys in the band (Combs and drummer Josh Raymer) are 12 years younger than me,” said Haas, 38. “So you have these two young guys from Tulsa (and) two older cats from Kansas City. From my perspective, they bring so much experience and peace and intelligence to what can sometimes be frenetic. And you can’t really talk about one without the other. They are so wrapped up in each other’s lives, musically and emotionally. They’re great friends who play together constantly.”
Southerland said he welcomes the chance to be part of an ensemble and focus solely on his horn playing, which isn’t the case with many of his other projects.
“Playing with Jacob Fred in some ways is very liberating,” he said. “So much of what I do are huge projects where I’m writing and directing people and working on props and costumes and there’s lots of improvisation in the music. Jacob Fred isn’t traditional jazz, but there’s more form and structure and some roots in traditional jazz. It’s fun to be the horn guy and the person expected to bring it on the instrument.”
He’ll have plenty of chances to do that over the next month or so. On Thursday, the quintet will perform “Race Riot” in its entirety when it headlines a show at the RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road. After that, it hits the road for several festivals, including the Blue Note Jazz Fest in New York, where they’ll follow a set by Cassandra Wilson, Festival Lent in Maribor, Slovenia, and the North Sea Jazz Fest in Rotterdam — “the crown jewel of jazz festivals,” said Southerland, who isn’t taking for granted all the work Haas has done to elevate the band.
“For him to graciously invite me in at this point is very kind, flattering,” he said. “It’s not like the days when they were touring 270 days a year, playing lord knows where. We’re not the hardcore road-dog band they used to be. There was a time for three years or so when this band really paid its dues.”
Haas expressed his gratitude, for both of his Kansas City bandmates: “Southerland and Harshbarger could have both moved to New York 15 years ago and made it and be playing with all those New York cats. Instead they stayed out here. We should all be grateful for that.”