Brian Haas wasn’t always a jazz musician. The Tulsa native and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey ringleader was instead trained from a young age to play classical piano. Even within the more structured confines of classical music, though, Haas has always been an improviser at heart.
“I would always get super nervous before competitions or recitals,” Haas said. “I would generally forget a large swath of material because I would be so nervous, so I would just improvise in the style of the composer until I could find my way back into the piece.”
After receiving numerous honors for his playing and graduating from Broken Arrow High School, Haas enrolled in The University of Tulsa’s music program, where he would eventually find his calling.
“When I started at TU, I could tell all the guys in the jazz program were having way more fun than the people in the classical program,” he said. “I basically started Jacob Fred to learn how to play jazz. I had no inkling it would take off like it did.”
Haas formed Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey in 1994, and the group experienced an unusual amount of success in its formative stage, playing gigs in New York City four times within its first two years.
Despite the success he has experienced — and with such a prolific output, releasing more than 20 albums in as many years under either Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey or his own name — Haas’ Oklahoma roots have remained integral to his approach.
“When you grow up here and you fall in love with this state and the region as I have, in a way, everything I do is still influenced by growing up in Oklahoma,” he said. “I’ve always thought my aesthetic is attached to the Oklahoma landscape.”
For Haas, who often reinterprets his environment in his music, nature has always been the most significant artistic influence. On his new album, Frames — which features only Haas on piano and renowned drummer Matt Chamberlain on drums — the duo recreates the vast, uncluttered simplicity of the Santa Fe, N.M., landscape, where Haas has made his home for the last two years.
“Santa Fe is really interesting because it’s at 7,000 feet, and it’s technically in high desert, but everything you’re looking at is true ponderosa pine forest,” he said. “It’s stark in some ways; it’s incredibly beautiful, but the beauty is based on repetition, and I think that’s why there’s so much repetition on the album.”
Frames clocks in at a mere 32 minutes, yet, in a live setting, it can easily stretch into 90. On Haas’ upcoming tour — which includes Saturday’s show at The Deli — the album will be performed in its entirety with a healthy bit of improvisation in between tracks. As an added bonus, those who pre-order the record before its Oct. 15 release date will receive a personalized improvisation — either performed live in concert or sent via email — based on his or her astrological chart. Haas calls it “jazzstrology.”
It’s Haas’ way of giving back to those who inspire him through what he does best.
“The openness of the people has affected the openness of my music. The huge skies, the weird mountains, the amazing old growth forests that we have in Oklahoma — I’ve been influenced by all that,” he said. “I’m probably a little more nervous about Oklahoma shows than I am playing anywhere else, because everybody knows me — maybe a little too well — and I just want to keep my friends happy.”