When Tulsa, Okla.-based guitarist Chris Combs started composing a concept album for his band, the quirky and eccentric Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, he didn't aim for lighthearted fare. Inspired by the sad and disturbing events that took place during the deadly Tulsa race riots of 1921, he created the foundation for an ambitious musical statement instead.
After 14 months of writing, rehearsing, and recording, the final result was a stunning and edgy collection titled The Race Riot Suite.
"It's written as a narrative, and it works chronologically, from start to finish," says Combs. "It tells the story of the Greenwood community and 'Black Wall Street,' which, in the early 1900s, was the most successful and affluent African-American community in the entire country. In 16 hours, more than 35 city blocks were burned to the ground. Most historians now estimate it between 1,000 and 3,000 people were killed in the race riot."
Telling a story about racism, violence, and survival through semi-improvisational music would be tough for any musical group, but the mostly instrumental Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey is accustomed to such challenges.
"It's abstract, but each movement is tied to specific places in time and places geographically," says Combs. "In a lot of ways, it was the scariest thing I've ever done."
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey formed in Tulsa in 1994. The band's lineup changed multiple times over the years. Pianist Brian Haas is the last remaining original member. The current lineup consists of Haas on piano and keys, Combs on lap steel and guitar, Jeff Harshbarger on upright bass, and Josh Raymer on drums.
Combs first connected with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey as a sit-in player. He had to prove his mettle before officially joining in 2009. While he's performed on the band's last three studio albums, The Race Riot Suite was the first collection he worked on as a writer.
"While I was in high school, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey used to just blow my mind," says Combs. "I used to go see them all the time. They did some of the most advanced and challenging instrumental music I'd ever heard. They were an avant-garde jazz band who'd reached an international level. They were the poster children for what started happen in Tulsa and the Midwestern cities over the last 10 years or so."