By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Tea Leaf Green is a band of San Francisco prog-rockers — wait, come back, it's not quite that bad — who've been steeping for more than a decade in a blend of jam-band ramble-craft and breezy pop melody. They've also consistently upped their game from album to album, shed show to shed show. As jam bands go, they're one of the ones you want to see.
In 2007, the band swapped bassists and picked a winner. Reed Mathis (far right in the photo above) had cut himself loose from the renowned Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey over some creative differences, and he wound up jamming with TLG at a Colorado festival. Some support gigs turned into a job, and by the last TLG album, "Radio Tragedy!," Mathis was well-integrated and contributing beautiful folk ballads like "My Oklahoma Home."
I welcome any opportunity to go on about Mathis, because I've never seen him play when he didn't completely jelly my brain. He's a bassist, but he's not a bass player. He doesn't merely keep the groove locked in. He's a wild, free-form, thick-stringed guitar player, equal parts Stravinsky and Hendrix. And a helluva nice guy, to boot.
Just a snatch from a recent conversation — Mathis on the phone this week as the band headed toward Chicago — about keeping his jazz roots, FOMO and the spiritual path of improvisation:
Q: Did you think about a post-Jacob Fred solo career?
Mathis: Not really, because for me the most important thing is to be part of a musical collective, like a gang. I don't want to be a sideman or an accompanist, which the bassist is usually expected to be. I want to be free to play my instrument exactly as I am in the moment at all times. Which is selfish, but that's OK. TLG is a safe place to improvise. They don't expect anything from the bass, nothing specific. They also don't expect me to play a song the same way twice. They love surprises, which is the cornerstone of my playing.
Q: Are you jam or jazz?
Mathis: A lot of the old Fred fans haven't checked out TLG. They think that's what's happened to me, that I'm in some mediocre jam band playing white boy funk in the back. People say, "Do you miss playing jazz?" The answer is I still am. Every note I play is jazz.
Q: Where does improv fit into our very neat and archived digital world?
Mathis: Improv is not that popular a concept, really — even in the "jam band" world. A lot of my friends adore Phish. They go see a Phish concert and they'll be like, "They played that song wrong" or "They messed up that song." I'm like, no, they didn't. They did something new with that song. Everyone claims to like improv, but it really bothers us. In actual practice, it's scary. People want to feel like they're in control or in the know — that's the huge thing for music fans. One writer called it the hipster echo-chamber, writing about Alabama Shakes, saying everyone's in this rush to be hip and into the new hip sh— and nobody wants to feel like they don't know what's happening. That has real power because that's the reality of our day-to-day life, moment to moment. We'll never have control over our lives, and that's why improv has power. It's surrendering to a lack of control. To me, it's a spiritual duty to face that on a nightly basis. Civilization itself has been a trend of getting further and further from this primal fear, and improv flips that over and gives it the finger. The only time people surrender to that lack of control is when they're in love. Improv is just falling in love over and over, night after night.
Tea Leaf Green has a new album, "In the Wake," due May 14.
TEA LEAF GREEN
with Tumbleweed Wanderers
• 9 p.m. Feb. 23
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $17 advance, $20 door; (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.