All posts in April 2013

Recent Press from Tulsa People

High score

Musician Chris Combs takes an original composition to Switzerland.

Chris Combs, right, talks with trumpet player Steven Bernstein before a performance of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s “Race Riot Suite” at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in July 2012. 

Chris Combs, above, talks with trumpet player Steven Bernstein before a performance of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s “Race Riot Suite” at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in July 2012.

Idon’t usually like to throw around the term “genius,” but it’s tough to conjure other superlatives that do proper justice to the work of guitarist, composer and all-around musical wizard Chris Combs.

The Tulsa native has been a staple of the local music scene since he was a teenager. (I’ve heard veteran Tulsa musicians recount stories of the first time they saw “the prodigy” wail on a guitar.) He’s now steel guitarist for “red dirt jazz” outfit Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, among many other side projects, and has drawn accolades from around the world for his lively and inventive work as a composer.

Recently, one of his compositions caught the ear of organizers of the Jazzwerkstatt Bern Festival in Bern, Switzerland, and they offered Combs the kind of opportunity most musicians couldn’t dream of, much less pull off.

“Their basic offer was: Create an original piece, we’ll bring you out here, and you can choose any lineup,” Combs says. “Five violins, or 10 harps, or whatever weird combination of music you can imagine — anything you want to try writing for, we’ll find the musicians to play it.”

Combs jumped at the chance, and set about composing a piece for 13 instruments, including steel guitar, drums, piano, bass and a horn section, as well as a string section, for which he’d never written. He spent months composing the 50-minute piece, sending charts and sheet music to his roster of Swiss musicians as he finished them.

The mind-blowing part of it all is that he wrote the entire piece without ever hearing anyone play the music as he was writing it.

“It just took a lot of imagination, I think, and a lot of pretending,” Combs says with a chuckle. “I don’t know. It’s mostly just imagination — and having some small amount of courage that it might work and it’s worth trying.”

It was that same courage and imagination that fueled Combs’s first venture into long-form composition: JFJO’s “Race Riot Suite,” which Combs composed and arranged in its entirety. What began as a couple of disparate musical ideas inspired by research into the darkest hour of Tulsa’s history grew into a revelatory masterwork, drenched in both the anguish of loss and the exaltation of hopeful perseverance.

“It’s definitely a special piece of music,” he says. “It felt like my dissertation — the result of everything I’ve learned from all the great Tulsa musicians I’ve played with and studied under over the years.”

“Race Riot Suite” was met with near universal praise, receiving sparkling reviews from publications such as the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe. While the band toured the material in Europe the following summer, Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer (who also happened to be one of the organizers of the Jazzwerkstatt Bern Festival) heard it and immediately contacted Combs to convey his admiration for the suite and to offer a spot at the festival.

Combs says he hopes to release the festival performance as an album, though he says that will depend on the quality of the recording. He’d also like to perform the piece in the U.S. sometime this year if the right venue comes along and he can round up the right musicians.

When I asked whether JFJO may tackle the piece in the near future, he just smiled.

“Jacob Fred has so much material. We have stuff just sitting around that we’ve never used,” he says. “I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’m more excited to continue the creation process.”

Such is life for a musical mastermind: scale a mountain and go looking for the next one.

Here’s hoping we can witness his next creation somewhere a tad more convenient than Switzerland.