The Fritz: A Vibe of Their Own

Keyboardist and songwriter Jamar Woods was part of an all-star lineup celebrating New Year’s 2018 at New York City’s Gramercy Theatre. Billed as the James Brown Dance Party, onstage that night were former musical associates of Prince and Brown as well as members of the Roots, Tedeschi Trucks Band and more. The assemblage of musicians was noteworthy not only for its high quality, but for its cross-genre nature and appeal.

And those same wide-screen qualities are part of Woods’ musical approach as showcased by his band, Asheville, North Carolina-based the Fritz. “Genres are useful in classifying things,” Woods says. “But that’s their only real use. I think that if you go to the store and you’re looking to buy something, it’s useful if it’s separated into different sections. But other than that, as I approach it as a musician: I just like to play music.”

The music on The Natural Mind, the second album from the Fritz, builds upon that thinking. As I observed in my recent review of the album, the stylistic breadth of the album suggests the well-distilled influence of artists as varied as King Crimson, the Brothers Johnson, Brian Eno, Curtis Mayfield and even 1970s krautrock. “Well,” Woods says with a chuckle, “if you hear it, it’s in there.”

Skeptics who think otherwise should note that Woods has served time as part of Project/Object, a top-level ensemble that plays faithful readings of tunes from the knottier end of Frank Zappa’s body of work. While Woods counts Talking Heads and Prince among his biggest influences, he allows that he’s also “a huge fan of prog rock. Within a song, the genres can just move and meld to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Woods’ songwriting method isn’t based on creating works in a particular style. “Just like a child growing up, as a song develops, it kind of makes a vibe of its own,” he says. “And writing towards just one vibe tends to be cliché. You tend to not open your mind to things that are outside of that.” He mentions the track “Fact From Fiction.” “That song had at least six different choruses until we settled on the one that we put on the album, and each one was completely different. Each had a completely different feeling in the middle of what is essentially an r&b song.”

While Woods is the central songwriter for the Fritz, his band mates are actively engaged in the process of developing the songs. And in a clear nod to the jazz aesthetic, the Fritz’s arrangements allow space for each player to shine. In fact, that approach is cooked into the songs from the very start, Woods says. “Within a group of five people, you have duos, trios, quartets and ultimately the quintet. Not everyone has to play at the same time, and not everyone has to play the same thing all the time. When we’re improvising, we leave open spaces. And those spaces can get filled by little things that help create the whole.”

And even though The Natural Mind focuses squarely on delivering concise, well-crafted songs with a solid groove, those tunes allow plenty of opportunities for instrumental fireworks. Woods mentions the track “Casual Mistakes” as an example. “There’s a kind of jam section in the middle of it,” he says, “and at that time, I was trying to challenge myself to play four keyboards at the same time in that one section. So each keyboard has little things sometimes only lasting a beat.”

After a January 12 hometown date (with headliners Turkuaz) at Asheville’s famed Orange Peel, the Fritz takes to the road for a sixteen-date tour that brings the group through the southeast, Texas and Colorado. Asked how he manages to make touring cost-effective in 2018, Woods bursts into laughter. When the laughter subsides, he says simply, “The answer is: you don’t. You have to do it for the love of it, or not do it at all. And that’s the end of the story.”

Woods and his band mates – James Hendrickson on guitar, bassist Jake O’Connor, drummer Michael Tillis and percussionist Mike Evans – clearly enjoy their time on the road. And Woods sees the relationship between studio work and live performance as two sides of the same coin. “In our live shows, the songs tend to be longer,” he says. “We feel the vibe of the audience. And we tried to capture that on the studio album. But to try to capture that life that you have onstage – the breath in the music – is relatively impossible, because the studio can be a very sterile environment.”

He hastens to add that the experience of making The Natural Mind with producer Dave Brandwein of Turkuaz was “a lot of fun, and relaxing.” Brandwein’s role in the studio was to “peel down songs to their essentials,” Woods says, “remov[ing] anything that wasn’t helping the song, to make the album concise.”

Woods reflects upon the best advice he’s ever encountered. After thinking a bit, he offers a quote from author Charles Bukowski: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” Woods doesn’t take the quote quite literally; he explains it as meaning that one “should be consumed in the act of making better music and making yourself a better musician.” And in th