Music: Smart Move

Former local drummer Jason Smart embarks on a new Odyssey

Former Ray's Music Exchange drummer Jason Smart (middle) now keeps time for the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.

If you feel the need to welcome home drummer Jason Smart when Jazz trio/young-old souls Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey play the Mad Frog Thursday night, do so. Know, good-hearted ones, that it isn't necessary. When it comes to his music, Smart has been at home since late last year.

Smart became the drummer for locals Ray's Music Exchange in late 1997. He sat behind the set for the Jazz/Fusion/World Beat combo as the band played its local 1998 H.O.R.D.E. Festival appearance, self-released the in-concert Cincinnati Entertainment Award-winning Alivexchange in 1999, and finished the in-studio Turanga (Delvian) last year. Add to this several regional tours with stops on both coasts, plus a sizable out-of-town fan base, then figure Ray's is the ideal place to be for a young Jazz drummer.

Just not this one.

Smart's beat-ing and rhythm-ing was an important part of Ray's varied style of Jazz/Fusion. From Afrobeat to Cuban, to traditional, to Zeppelin-esque kit bashers, and points well beyond these, Smart did these all impeccably. For him, what was missing was the improvisation — composing and performing extempore, unforeseen.

Improvisational Jazz drumming is Smart's dearest love and arguably his most lethal musical weapon.

I can testify to experiencing Smart years ago when he improvised a drum solo at the beginning of the Ray's piece "Ran Over Ray" that straightened the hairs on the back of my neck. It was beautiful, melodic, thunderous, unorthodox and musical. Smart played music on his drums during that solo. This is what separates him from too-many masturbatory Bonham-wish-we-weres.

But, for Smart, comparisons to Rock & Roll drummers are inaccurate. Smart is a Jazz drummer.

In his final months as a Ray's member, Smart began an improvisational project, Soma. Featuring an interchangeable roster of mostly Jazz musicians and Smart on the drummer's stool, Soma went deeper into improv than Ray's ever did.

Don't misunderstand: Ray's wasn't too traditional for Smart, but rather the band was too incongruent for him. He wanted a better fit.

"I was always trying to pull things in a more improvisational way," Smart discloses with a guilty smile.

Congruency came from, of all places, Oklahoma. Bassist Reed Mathis, keyboardist Brian Haas and his then-drumming brother Richard, better known as Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, came calling from Tulsa last autumn. Our subject takes over this story from here.

I interviewed Smart as Jacob Fred arrived in Washington, D.C. to play the Velvet Club, with supporting act, a solo-acoustic Kobie. The band is on tour promoting All Is One — Live in New York City (Knitting Factory), its seventh release, and Smart's first with Jacob Fred. It's also one of the year's best, in Jazz, live recordings or any other category.

CityBeat: Did you leave Ray's Music Exchange purposely to join Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey? Or had you already left?

Jason Smart: I quit Ray's in June of 2001, and then I ended up joining Jacob Fred on Halloween of 2001. I intended originally to have a lot of time off and not be in another band, but that was such a good situation coming along. It changed my mind (laughs). It's really fitting like a glove, all the way around. I'm the band's fourth drummer.

CB: On one side of the stage is Brian Haas, keyboardist, who is playing bass, rhythms, melody or melody accompaniment at any given time. On the other side is Reed Mathis, a bass guitarist, reminding me not of Mingus or Pastorius but of Coltrane or Hendrix. What is your role as drummer in Jacob Fred?

JS: I'm sure you've seen them before when I wasn't in the band. It was a more chaotic, free, exploration-madness-thing. I rein it in a bit. A lot of times, the best way for direction to change in the music is for the drummer to do it. So I'm initiating things. We all do that to a certain extent. The drums are just a loud, noticeable focal point, you know, to make some of those twists and turns happen. When it gets very free, it's up to me for tempo, dynamic level, the whole thing. It's a very textural role, taking some of that freedom and making more forms out of it. It's a lot of what I do.

CB: Your first show with Jacob Fred was when the band supported the Funky Meters in New Orleans.

JS: That was a beautiful milestone. The original Meters is one of my main blueprints. If I think about funky playing, I think they're the end-all-be-all.

CB: The Funky Meters are arguably the Jedi Council in the Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones universe of what are known as Jam bands.

JS: That's one thing I would definitely like to touch on. We like to call what we do improvising instead of jamming. Jamming connotes noodling around too much. We think of ourselves as Jazz musicians. We play in the Jam band scene, which we believe is a scene. It doesn't describe any band. Every band jams. I think that term is obsolete and kind of stupid. We feel that we are part of the Jazz tradition, as weird as it may be to people. It doesn't sound like 1950s Miles Davis, but it's not supposed to, here in 2002. It's supposed to be something else. All those masters took it somewhere, and we're trying to take it where we want it to go. With constant evolution and growth, hopefully.

JACOB FRED JAZZ ODYSSEY performs at the Mad Frog on Thursday, with support by Da Lemmings Onsombol. The band appears on BET Jazz Oct. 23 (8 p.m.) and Oct. 27 (10 p.m.) For more information on Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, visit

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