Two Days Steeped in Harmony: “Live at Barley Forge” from Jason Fabus

All about those clean sounds and so melodically driven – Jason Fabus’s latest CD “Live at Barley Forge” achieves its goal to honor the laid-back West Coast vibe. Though leader and sax player Fabus veered off early in his career to play for Disney theme parks, the experience has strongly informed his musical identity as it included a substantial number of amazing opportunities to play alongside some heavy hitters.

“Live at Barley Forge” is a collection of the best of the best in terms of beautifully written favorites like “All the Things You Are” (effortless), “Everything Happens to Me” (Bill Evans’s creation captured in all its sweet melancholy, with a special nod to a sizzling bari sax), and the smart “I Want to be Happy,” which under some musicians can be hokey and self-conscious but with Fabus and company is bright in tone, lightly executed and contains some smokin’ solos.

How has the unique experience of playing in a Disneyland band influenced your musical aesthetic or your approach to music?

Working at the Disney parks has been a great experience for me, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. I moved out to southern California to get my Master’s degree at Cal State Long Beach, and while in school auditioned and was accepted into the All-American College Band at Disneyland.

This is an incredible opportunity for music students all across the country – it is an intense rehearsal process involving music memorization, choreography, singing and entertaining a live audience. Not to mention getting to play alongside some of the industries great musicians and mentors on a weekly basis (Wycliffe Gordon, Bob Mintzer, Sal Lozano, Gordon Goodwin, Jiggs Whigham, Willie Murrillo, etc.). Shortly after my summer with the AACB, I auditioned for a union job at Disney and got it. So, my first job out of college was at Disneyland and I’m still happy to work there today. I’m currently a part-time sub in seven different bands at the parks.

As a composer, what elements do you try to include in your music?

I am very influenced by melodic players, especially in jazz and swing music. I feel like they can approach an old standard with the mindset of a composer. Saxophonists like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges did that early on, and it still rings true in a large group of musicians today. So I like to take care of the melody, and try to express the meaning behind the lyrics on my instrument. Even when I’m soloing, I want to take care of the melody and present it to the listener, perhaps in my own creative way.

The theory and harmony of late 50s orchestrators get me every time – Gordon Jenkins, Nelson Riddle, Johnny Mandel and a long list of great composers/arrangers have always influenced my writing style. They also made me realize at a young age that even though I wanted to play saxophone professionally, I would need to gain a foundation at the piano if I wanted to write and arrange.   

As a leader in several groups, how do you keep each band’s sound unique?

You have to put in enough hours as a group (either in gigs or rehearsals) to get that “group sound.” I’m just thankful that several of my groups have achieved that these past years. I’m more thankful that the colleagues I play with are also my best friends. So we connect on a deeper level.

This is not a business where you just clock in and work alongside other professionals. It’s a group effort where every band member is taking turns with leadership, expressing themselves, accompanying others or just grooving in the moment together.  

Polka can be much-maligned. What do you love about the music and why should people give it a second chance?

Growing up in Milwaukee, I was surrounded by German and Polish culture from a young age. I mean, they still sing “Roll out the Barrel” at every Brewers and Packers game! In high school, a good family friend Sandy gave me my first squeezebox – a little red Hohner 12-bass accordion. I picked it up quickly and ended up starting a little polka trio with two other friends called The Polka Dotz. In fact, my first garage band was a polka band!

The music just kept with me through college and now out to Los Angeles, where I lead one of the most popular Oktoberfest Bands on the West Coast. In fact, our version of “Roll out the Barrel” just passed over 1 million views on YouTube!

What can I say about the music? It’s just plain FUN. If you’ve never been to an Oktoberfest event, please go to it and see for yourself. The music is upbeat march-style music (strong emphasis on beats 1 & 3, with trio sections that usually key change up a 4th). And I must say, for myself and my band mates, we love to shift over to this style of music for a couple months every year and take a break from our normal way of life. It’s a fun way to try something different and see how it still affects people in a positive way.

For your trio, talk about what each musician brings to the overall vibe.

The trio is myself alongside Shane Savala (guitar) and Nick Ornelas (bass). We like to keep our arrangements tight and swinging. No nonsense, just a fun way to keep these old songs fresh! I think that my favorite type of jazz ensemble has to be the piano trio. Guys like Oscar Peterson, Nat “King” Cole, Ahmad Jamal, Bud Powell, Hank Jones… They really had the tightest arrangements and could always connect on the highest level of TIME and RHYTHM.

So playing saxophone with guitar and bass helps me get into that mindset. We are three equal parts of the whole group. I plan on releasing another album with the trio in 2021 and would like to include some of my own compositions on that.  

Why did you put together “Live at Barley Forge”?

Barley Forge was a great brewery in Costa Mesa, CA. They have since closed up and I wanted this album to help commemorate the establishment. They used to have live jazz every Thursday night, and I would get to play there a couple times a year. The recordings on this album are from two different nights at Barley Forge: January 31st and July 18th in 2019. You can hear Nick Ornelas on upright bass alongside Tyler Kreutel on drums. And we featured two different horn players, Tim Gill on trumpet followed by Tim McKay on baritone saxophone.

Whenever I played at Barley Forge, I liked to try a different style of group with two horns, bass, and drums. Harkening back to the West Coast style of jazz in the 1960s, we wanted to play some popular jazz standards along with lesser-known tunes that we discovered. It’s always nice to have two horns improvising together with a chordless rhythm section – it just puts you into a different mindset of exploration. More harmonic rules tend to be broken, while interaction with the rhythm section remains pivotal. It has helped me appreciate the true leadership role that the bass and drums have in an ensemble. 

What was the biggest challenge in producing this album?

The challenge was deciding to mix and master it myself, but I want to keep improving my ear. After all, the only way to get better at producing is to practice it.

It was fun putting the horns on opposite sides, setting up the drum set and bass in a way that I liked. I’m trying to make it sound authentically live in that 1960s West Coast style. I love the honesty that all the fellas had in their playing; true improvisation isn’t always pretty, but it’s gotta be honest! One interesting thing to note is that we played the tune “Out of Nowhere” on both nights, so you can listen to those two back to back and compare them.

Are there glimmers of change occurring in the live music scene?

There is no doubt that this pandemic has caused a fracture in the music scene. No gigs in the foreseeable future, and many musicians are hanging on by a thread. But I am encouraged to see people yearning to get back outside and go to restaurants, live shows and concerts when the time is right. I think the quarantine taught people what really matters most in their everyday lives; community and the arts. I am confident that musicians will remain creative and find a way to get through this and succeed again. In the meantime, I want to encourage anyone reading this to go buy a CD or download an album of their favorite local band or artist. The sentiment is much more important than the money itself. 

For more information visit www.jasonfabus.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jason Fabus.

© Debbie Burke 2020

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