Recap and Review of Jazz Live with The Christian Jacob Trio

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Recap and Review of Jazz Live with The Christian Jacob Trio

The Christian Jacob Trio Doesn't Deconstruct Standards; They Reveal What's Been There the Whole Time

By Matt Silver

The Christian Jacob Trio. From left: Jacob on piano, Trey Henry on bass, Ray Brinker on drums. Photo by Larry Redman.

I’ve been writing about jazz since 2016, which is not an eternity but more than a minute, and I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of pianist Christian Jacob until last Tuesday night. The reason I’m embarrassed is because Jacob’s chops, the staggering breadth of his musicality, warrant so much more than mere name recognition; they warrant the type of adulation given to all the other greats of today and yesterday— Brad Mehldau, Ethan Iverson, Joey Alexander, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, and even Monk before them—who approach jazz with the erudition of a classical concertmaster, a child’s playfulness, and an adolescent’s total disregard for boundaries.

Christian Jacob composes, arranges, and, when need be, does endearing crowd work. Photo by Larry Redman.

Jacob held about a dozen standards to the giant funhouse mirror in his labyrinthine mind last Tuesday night (Sept. 12, 2023) and, well-mannered Frenchman that he is, sheepishly gave the audience at San Diego City College’s Saville Theatre several disclaimers lest they become disoriented or otherwise put off by his “weird” and “dark” machinations. Which, rapt and delighted at every odd time-signature and alien chord, they decidedly were not.

Particularly striking was the chemistry between each member of Jacob’s trio. They operate via the sort of telepathy that turns three talented individual musicians into a great band. Bassist Trey Henry and drummer Ray Brinker, together with Jacob, have made up Tierney Sutton’s rhythm section for the better part the last 25 years, cut several albums together as The Christian Jacob Trio, collaborated on original music for Clint Eastwood’s Sully, toured together with Maynard Ferguson, and, along with Sutton, have been nominated for at least half-a-dozen Grammys.

Jacob’s bandmates intuit his tics and tendencies so well as to know how to best shade the borders so the leader’s color choices really pop. But Henry and Brinker are so much more than the customary complementary pieces; they are extraordinary musicians. You won’t catch Henry playing a wrong note or missing a rhythmic cue, which is precisely what frees Jacob to play the kinds of chords he jokingly disclaimed to the audience as “too strange for words” without ever losing the melodic thread—or, more importantly, allowing the audience to.

Play: "Time After Time"

But Henry’s sound is such that it’d be wasteful to exclusively hide him behind the band as a melodic compass or metronome. On the night’s opener, Jule Styne’s “Time after Time” (Jacob loves Styne and played arrangements of at least three Styne tunes over the course of two hour-long sets), Jacob opens with a dreamlike, syncopated prologue, obscuring the song’s provenance just enough to raise curiosity, before leaving to Henry the glory of pulling back the curtain and earning those grinning nods of satisfied recognition you get when a crowd is knowledgeable enough to feel complicit in the artistry.

Most bandleaders will find their bassists a layup or two throughout a tune — four or eight traded measures in flyover territory to keep them in the game — but most don’t have bassists with a sound big or nimble or unadulterated enough to lead them in and out of port. Clearly not so here.

Bassist Trey Henry met Jacob and drummer Ray Brinker touring with Maynard Ferguson and they’ve been at home playing with one another ever since. Photo by Larry Redman.

Meanwhile, what Brinker presented last Tuesday night was a masterclass in controlled ferocity, alternating seamlessly between sticks, brushes, and mallets—and even once, during Jacob’s plodding and playful arrangement of “Tea for Two,” taking to the drum kit with his bare hands as if manning a pair of congas.

At the end of the night, as Brinker was packing up his drums, a member of the audience approached the stage and told him that in all her years of listening to music, she’d never heard a drum solo that had made her cry, “until tonight.” I can only presume she was referring to Brinker’s two-plus minute solo on “Rolling and Shaking,” a Jacob original from his 2019 album consisting of all originals called, aptly, if perhaps a tad literal, The Originals. The creativity of that album’s cover art, though, belies the ostensibly unimaginative title of the album; each member of the band is rendered as a comic book-style superhero. You know: And with their powers combined, they are The Originals — that kind of thing.

The Brinker on stage Tuesday night, while animated, was no cartoon, though few in attendance would’ve doubted the superhero thing.  The aforementioned solo on “Rolling and Shaking,” left Jacob so gleefully mesmerized it was a good thing Brinker took it upon himself to demonstratively cue Jacob back in.

Drummer Ray Brinker conducts a masterclass in controlled fury. Photo by Larry Redman.

And he produced several more awe-inspiring moments: His bossa-like groove on Jacob’s spicy 7/4 arrangement of “That’s All” was simply a clinic in percussive power brushing, and his contained fury on Styne’s “Just in Time,” another arrangement in seven, actually began to sound like a train approaching its destination just in time, propelling forward with the power of a coal-powered locomotive and the precision of a bullet train, while swinging with the swagger of a hip-hop groove. At one point in the second set, during Jacob’s arrangement of “Even Mice Dance,” Michel Petrucciani’s graceful, dignified waltz, I wrote this in my notebook about Brinker’s brush work: “If I were a drummer, I’d throw my brushes in the nearest river after hearing this guy.”

But ultimately, there are two things that set this band apart from any other trio of master technicians. The first is their ability to evoke and manipulate not just every emotional shade in the color palette but, often, several at a time and one after another—from the manic muscle of “Rolling and Shaking” to the poignance of a tune like “Even Mice Dance,” which, as the song’s title suggests, urges you to re-evaluate the depth, elegance, and soul of someone or something you may have underestimated or overlooked (for me, the Michel Petrucciani songbook). The second is Jacob’s genuine feel for and commitment to swing. Some piano players of Jacob’s more heady inclinations tend to deprioritize it or eschew it altogether, like just another anachronistic idiom to be deconstructed and ironically repurposed.

Not Jacob, who endeared himself to the audience several times throughout the evening but no more so than when he confessed, before launching into a ­­­­serene rendition of the iconic Jerome Kern/Johnny Mercer ballad, to being, at his core, old-fashioned.

But that, too, is putting things a tad simplistically. Jacob is old-fashioned but only insofar as it’s considered old-fashioned for a musician to consider his audience and to consider performance as something done for an audience rather than to an audience. The brilliance of his arrangements is not how they depart from the source material to say something completely new but how they activate a previously latent emotional subcurrent to say something old more completely.

And, yes, they sure do swing.

For proof, see his take on what he termed “the most standard of all standards,” George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” If Charlie Parker’s riff on Firebird at Birdland caused a spectating Stravinsky to “spill his scotch in ecstasy,” there’s no telling what kind of euphoria Jacob’s quotations here of Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning” and Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” might’ve elicited in Gershwin, though Brinker’s furious expression of the staggering amount of rhythm in his possession may very well have induced an accidental inhalation on one of his “ubiquitous” Don Sebastian cigars or at least the toppling over of an ice-cream soda. Even Gershwin couldn’t have expected one man to have that much rhythm.

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