Jazz piano mastermind Brian Haas (Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey) has eked out a veritable paradise off Alameda Street. Nestled up against the hill, his glorious home and studio have provided shelter from the cold, and a home base from which he can dramatically and drastically affect the future of jazz. No big.
It's here, recently, that Haas and his buddy and musician-in-arms, trumpeter Alex Massa, sat down to discuss their local shows, their upcoming four-week tour and exactly why modern jazz is in so much trouble. Spoiler alert: We're all thinking about it a little too hard.
"It's like, my concept—harmonically, melodically—it's shifting constantly. I don't stick to any straight forms," Haas says. "A lot of what I do is theme and variation, kind of like classical music, and Alex just gets it."
Haas and Massa met a few years back in New Orleans. Haas was performing at a club; Massa was there reading.
"I was like, 'Why is this dude reading in the back of the jazz club?'" Haas recalls.
"We literally bumped into each other," Massa says. "He was super jittery and anxious, and we started talking about how I had come into this new New Orleans scene of avant-garde jazz improvisers—and we didn't see each other for about nine months. But we ran into each other somewhere, and Brian was playing this private house concert, and I sat in for the last tune."
A kinship formed.
According to Haas and Massa, jazz is in serious trouble and rife with musicians who have little interest in innovation and who instead choose to focus on the classics and homage with little to no concept of pushing the style forward. As musicians, each had tired of standards and bebop well before they met; both had struggled in music programs during college with prohibitive teaching methodology and small-minded teachers—the jam sessions no longer held any appeal.
"If jazz is going to continue as an American art form, we can't let it turn into academia," Haas explains. "All of the studying, the jazz schools, it's completely dumbing down America's only true art form and turning it into an archaic music, when the entire definition of jazz is something that has to keep pushing forward and changing every day. That's how art works. That's evolution."
"In doing so," Massa adds, "you add to the tradition instead of just using the same recipe."
Thus, they improvise together. The practice is firmly rooted in trust and the bond Haas and Massa have built. While visiting Haas' studio space, the pair allowed me to capture footage of a completely improvised minute-long song (find it on SFR's YouTube channel). Haas, of course, is a monster pianist, his fingers dancing over the keys in arhythmic movements that firmly embody the jazz gestalt, but sound unlike most anything you'll hear elsewhere. Massa's accompaniment tunes into the underlying beauty of the keys, accentuating and building on seemingly inconsequential notes and bringing them to the forefront in clever polyphonic moments that feel lyrical, like they are telling a story.
"It's about our interaction with the audience, too," Haas explains of live performances. "It's about the kind of music we play being super-influenced by ambient music and electronica. The reason I've been lucky enough to have any success in music at all is because I'm really bad at copying. I'm a terrible jazzbot, but I'm good at being Brian Haas."
For his part, Massa, who now calls Chicago home, self-identifies as a lifelong outcast. For him, jazz has proven a tough nut to crack. He doesn't play quite like anyone else, he says, and from the professors who called his song selections "stupid" to the jam bands who questioned his off-meter style, he struggled to find a musically intellectual equal before Haas. He's been kicked off tours and forced to sit out, but Haas summarizes their output as something almost divine; the love between them is apparent and fuels the creativity. It almost goes without saying that they're both weirdos.
"There's an attitude that not only surrounds older jazz and black American music, but a lot of contemporary sounds," Massa says. "If you don't understand it, if you're not 'hip' enough to listen to it, if you don't feel like you have the ability to be vulnerable enough to say 'I don't know…' I don't think I'd even call what we're playing 'jazz.' And doing that is paying tribute to those who came before."
Massa and Haas perform at Tonic this Friday and Saturday night with stalwart local jazz drummer Loren Bienvenu. The rest is up to you.
Brian Haas, Alex Massa and Loren Bienvenu:
9:30 pm Friday Feb. 8 and Saturday Feb. 9. Free.
103 E Water St.,