Celebrated jazz piano improvisational mastermind Brian Haas saved a senior woman from drowning a few weeks ago. True story. Haas, who lives part time in New Orleans and part time in Santa Fe, had just returned after four months on the road with his fellow improv nerds and found himself parked along the Santa Fe River in a part of town where he rarely, if ever, visits. With friends in from out of town, he was wandering along slowly, but then heard the cries for help. He rushed to the bank as his buddy shouted, “Brian, there’s a human in the river!” Haas says. He saw a hand emerging from the water, clutching an overhanging tree branch, then went into a sort of autopilot mode. He leapt into the river and, summoning all his strength, literally lifted the would-be drowning victim to safety.
“She was just exhausted, man,” Haas tells SFR, “but I was pure adrenaline. I couldn’t sleep that night, and later I learned that I’d basically dumped all my brain chemicals yanking her out of the water. I felt depressed for days.”
Ultimately, though, he feels pretty upbeat about the right place/right time experience.
“If I had gone down that slope 30 seconds later, she would have gone on and continued to get carried away,” he says. “I mean, it was so strange. The water was extremely violent and must have been like 6 feet deep. She’d jumped in to rescue her dog, who I guess had immediately jumped back out. It was crazy, but it was just not her time.”
It’s a hell of a welcome home for Haas, who has been spending most of his days in New Orleans since the pandemic shut down concerts in New Mexico. Things changed down there, Haas explains, but the Big Easy was quicker to adopt outdoor venues than other cities during the height of COVID-19. For working musicians like Haas, it meant the difference between staying afloat and sinking into debt or worse. The changes also sparked a new kind of Southern touring circuit, according to Haas. He and many of his contemporaries, collaborators and colleagues took advantage of the format during a time when the simplest outdoor shows elsewhere meant a nightmarish labyrinth of logistics for promoters, performers and concertgoers. With New Orleans serving as the starting point, musicians would travel east to Florida, making stops along the way in states such as Alabama and Georgia. They’d return through the same venues on the way home; then it’d start up again.
“The speakeasy thing got huge in New Orleans and the Southern states,” he says. “These venues...were staying open and doing lowered capacities, but thank goodness. And I couldn’t believe how much I suddenly enjoyed hanging out in red states.”
Oh, it’s not that Haas has gone conservative, though. Far from it. He still maintains his Santa Fe home and heads out into the woods and desert on hiking sojourns. He still rescues dogs when he finds them unattended in the world. These days, too, he’s mostly focused on sharpening his music skills. At 49, he’s already cut a notable swath in the experimental music game with improv-heavy jazz acts like Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Nolatet and Punkadelic. Think of Haas more like Zappa than whatever you assume jazz might be. He doesn’t play music for elevators. He does, however, extrapolate and beautify already-composed pieces—or even songs that are crafted onstage, in the moment, by players who walk the improv tightrope often enough to understand it’s all about trust. At the core of that trust is Haas’ dedication to composing works, too; you’ve gotta know the rules before you can bend or break ‘em, after all, and for Haas to remain a standout player in his own bands, or as a member of someone else’s, means he sees and hears music better than most. His dogs are cute, too.
Last time we checked in with Haas was four years ago, when he imported New Orleans-based trumpet master Alex Massa to town for a few shows. At the time, Haas told SFR that “If jazz is going to continue as an American art form, we can’t let it turn into academia,” and he has continued that mission in the interim. And so, between that and the whole saving lives thing, it might be time for Santa Fe to understand what he’s really bringing to the table—a level of heady, tricky, not-what-you-assume jazz that wraps up so many elements of rock, punk and good old-fashioned experimentalism.
Take Haas’ Fat Minotaur, featuring Santa Fe percussion legend Mikey Chavez, for example, the band with which Haas will make public his recent Santa Fe return. If you’re curious, that’s a Pat Benetar joke, though unlike Pat, Haas and Chavez will most likely delve into musical things you’ll never see coming. The fearsome twosome leans heavily into their improvisational chops, but with such aplomb one would easily assume everything was pre-written. Also slated to play are Cyrus Campbell—an upright bassist with Santa Fe roots who is fresh outta the Berklee College of Music and ready to elevate Haas’ style into the stratosphere—and punky/funky music nerds ...And Then Came Humans. While all of this is a little hard to nail down when it comes to explaining sound, that last act is the most elusive. Actually, maybe these dudes are Zappa and Haas is...also Zappa? Look, if you’re looking for 4/4 tunes that you won’t have to think about even a little, this show might not be for you. But if you want to expand those horizons into regions where lesser ears fear to tread, this is the way.
“We’ll be doing some of my originals, a lot of new original compositions, but we’ll be doing improv, too,” Haas notes. “...And Then Come Humans will finish it off with their unique takes on covers and originals, but it’s a huge variety. My goal is to do whatever it takes to not repeat myself, do whatever it takes to not start playing licks because I’ve gotten lazy. It comes down to having a responsibility to our own creativity—getting our pencils out and getting to work.”
Fat Minotaur with Cyrus Campbel and ...And Then Came Humans: 8 pm Tuesday, June 20. $20. Leaf & Hive Brew Lab, 1208 Mercantile Road Ste. A, (505) 699-3055