A Music/Media site that strives to provide thought provoking coverage of All Bands that Jam. As our music community grows hopefully the magic that started "this" will keep shining it's lovelight. We at Grateful Music are a company started by a fan and still run for the love of music for fans. Everybody is Super Heady in our sandbox. Nothing left to do but smile!
Friday, May 20
Is Phish Jazz?
There are few
claims one can make about jazz without running into some controversy and
apparent contradictions. In fact, the only definitive claim one can make about
Jazz is that one can’t generalize about Jazz. This difficulty in generalization
is also what makes Jazz so profoundly unique and lasting. This arises from the
inherent nature of jazz being a style of playing an amalgamation of cultures
and influences into its own unique voice. Early Jazz developed from African,
Spanish, French, classical European influences, and “the work song, another frequently cited
predecessor to Jazz” (Gioia: 8). These work songs, the spirituals, and the
blues merged together and gave birth to Jazz, which has been changing ever
since. This inherent entropy in Jazz explains why Swing and Bebop, Free Jazz
and Ragtime, Second Line and Hard Bop, can all be classified as “jazz.” There
is another form of quintessential American music that follows almost the exact
same trajectory: the music of “Jam bands.”
even less of a consensus of what constitutes “Jam music,” mostly because there
is not much (if at all) academic and scholastic work done on the art form
itself. In fact, if critics aren’t ignoring the music, they are usually
deriding it. Vice wrote an article called “Phish Has Been a Band for Thirty
Years and they Have Sucked the Whole Time,” La Weekly asked, “Can an
Intelligent Person like Phish,” and Esquire wrote one entitled “No, It Really
is Them: Why it’s Okay to Hate Phish,” where the author wrote “Phish knows all
the right notes, but they don’t know what they mean.” This criticism however
doesn’t stop jam bands from having a large, devoted following. Most fans of jam
bands would say Jam Bands are just rock bands that improvise, however this is simultaneously
both too broad and too confining a definition for what makes a band a Jam Band.
The history of Jam bands begins with the Grateful Dead (a band whose front man,
Jerry Garcia, lived a very similar life to that of Charlie Parker), however a
band that exemplifies the relationship and symmetry of Jam music to Jazz, is Phish, a 4-piece band from Vermont that
has been playing together since the 1980s. There’s a mathematical concept
called homeomorphism, which means two spaces are the same even if they might
appear from the outset like two distinct entities: for example, a coffee mug is
homeomorphic to a donut topologically. I claim that Phish is homeomorphic to
Jazz music, and that despite its seeming differences Jam can be thought of as a
subset of Jazz.
this claim to hold any weight, Phish must have been influenced by the same
forces as Jazz. Trey Anastasio, the lead singer, guitarist and composer of the
band explained how the members of Phish “studied composition in college and
always loved orchestral songs” and “a lot of these large scaled pieces for
Phish are modeled on classical” music (PBS News Hour). This quote already
contradicts the notion that Jam Bands are only rock bands trying to improvise,
and provides a level of complexion not often associated with Jam. This level of
sophistication in Rock and roll ties into the Boppers who “were concerned, with
art, not entertainment” (Ellison: 455). Trey also explained how his “mother was
an enormous lover of Broadway [who] used to play lots of cast album” when he
was growing up, and the Swing music in New York during the 1920s and 30s
greatly influenced the music of Broadway, so listening to cast albums is
inherently listening to a heavy influence of Jazz (PBS News Hour). In fact,
Phish would often early on “do a lot of big band arraignments,” and Trey
commented on how he loves playing in different settings because he can “learn
stuff you take back to Phish” within the new music (PBS News Hour). Mike
Gordon, the bassist, also mentioned that they “cover a bunch of bluegrass songs” and have been “definitely
influence by it” (David Bryne). The historical and spatial context that the
Boppers found themselves in led them to the clubs like Minton’s as “a place to
hold their interminable jam sessions” which is “the jazzman’s true academy”
(Ellison: 453). Similarly, Trey explains how Phish was able to earn their
chops, so to speak: “Every bar wanted a band, so when you get a gig in
Burlington in 1983, it was for 3 nights and 3 sets…and the owner of the bar
would come up to us and say ‘play a slow one, play a fast one, play a cover’ so
we got good at playing live” (PBS News Hour). I’ve showed Phish has similar
stylistic influences and historical circumstances, however the symmetry would
be meaningless if it didn’t extend to the music itself.
Evans, in the liner notes for Kind of
Blue, wrote how “this conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful
reflection…has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique
disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician” (Kind of Blue). An interesting point of note here is he seems to
make little to no distinction between an improvising musician and Jazz
musician, a point of view that would instantly qualify Phish as a Jazz band, but
I will act on the assumption that improvisation does not inherently make one a
Jazz musician to more rigorously demonstrate Phish is a Jazz band. Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’s magnum opus, introduced the notion of
group improvisation, an action Evan’s describes as “a further challenge”
because “aside from the weighty
technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human,
even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result” (Kind of Blue).This notion of group improvisation is the
culmination of the gradual merging of dialog and sense of community in Jazz,
both of which are personified in Phish.
order to reach the level of musicianship to coherently group improvise, one
must put in countless hours of practice and get intimately familiar with the
rest of the band. Trey talked about how “one of the things [they] do as a band
is jamming exercises” because they “wanted organized jamming” (PBS News Hour). This
sense of dialog within the band is exemplified during these exercises when the
band “would go around in a circle and each musician would start a phrase and
then the other three would have to join in…and then the focus would shift to
the next person in line” (PBS News Hour). This discipline and mastery of their
craft allows them freedom in their live performances similar to the freedom
granted to the musicians at Minton’s where they could focus on just jamming. It
is these live performances that most people are referring to when they discuss
Jam Bands like Phish. These live performances run so smoothly, according to
Trey because the band members realize “you don’t want to listen to yourself;
it’s important to hear what someone else is playing” because“the theory is if you just listen you’ll
never run out of ideas” (Phish). Page McDonald, the keyboardist, gives another
way the dialog extends into these live performances, as the members of the band
“can play off the
energy of the crowd” as well as each other (David Bryne). This point brings up
the notion of dialoging with the crowd and the community as well as the band
members, and it is with respect to this that Jam Bands go even farther than
typical Jazz bands.
being associated with a specific location, Phish and Jam bands of its caliber,
build a community that devotedly follows them around from location to location.
This inherently changing community ties perfectly into the Jazz conception of
entropy. Trey claimed that Phish’s “idea was then that that message [of
communication] would spread out,” and because “it has, the Phish scene is [now]
a community, and we’re a community with” them (PBS News Hour). This community is not just a passive
participant in enjoying the music of Phish, but rather plays an active role in
the ever-changing dialogue that takes place between audience and band.
audience engagement ranges from the subtle nuances, to playing a direct role in
how the band sounds and what they decide to play. A couple of subtle examples
spring from the audience’s spontaneous responses to certain songs Phish plays.
For example, Trey tells Guitar Magazine how "there's a song we did last night, Stash, where the
audience does this clapping thing. They just started doing it one night and it
worked its way into the song. The audience wrote it. No matter where we go, our
audience knows to do that" (Guitar Player magazine (vol 28 no 9)). Stash
is one of the most composed songs in Phish’s repertoire, so it is telling that
this is a song the audience chose to improvise over.This happens in another song called Wilson,
where “Trey/Mike play a pair of two-beats -- duh-dun duh-dun -- and the
audience responds with "Wiiiiil-son", drawing the first syllable out”
as explained in the Phish fan website, Phish.net (Phish.net). The members of
Phish allow and encourage a more direct influence in their sound from the
audience as well. For example, Trey gave an interview to the official Phish
YouTube channel where he explained that his “compressor went away for a
while, but when Phish came back, some people got together and purchased a new
one and sent it to me” and he has used it ever since (Phish). Another example
involves a tradition Phish does on Halloween. One year they spontaneously
decided to cover another band’s entire album for a set, and it quickly became a
tradition that the audience got a say in. The band would “put out the word that we
wanted fans to vote on what album we would cover for the first two years” and
would play the album that received the most votes (David Bryne). None of this
truly captures the intensity and sense of belonging one feels when attending a
Phish concert however, and it is this immense sense of indescribable contentment
that personifies the notions of community that the Jazz context strives to
achieve, and which Phish has accomplished.
with trying to make art forms into a rigorous set notation like Group Theory is
that art is an intrinsically human endeavor, with its participants under no
obligations to follow the rules supposedly defined for them. Using the
assumptions that the recipe for a Jazz band is improvisation, dialog, a sense
of community and vital aliveness, one can’t argue against the inclusion of
Phish. Jazz has typically been used as a dialog for critiquing a social
context, and so one might try to argue that even though Phish’s music is
dialogic it isn’t used in the same context as Jazz bands; a la “Phish knows
all the right notes, but they don’t know what they mean” (Esquire). However, I would argue that, even though the
members of the band are white men playing to a mostly white audience, and as
such are not forced to view Jazz as a desperate form of claiming a cultural
agency, they still use their music to express a unique philosophic and
existential view of the world. Since Jazz is more of a style and not an epistemology
like the Blues is, there is more leeway as to what the dialog can be about and
still be described as Jazz. As such, I see no reason for scholars to not
consider Jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead a new branch of Jazz, as
opposed to an entirely different form of music.
Trey. Interview by Jeffrey Brown. "Phish Front Man Casts Wide Musical
Net." PBS News Hour. PBS. 2 July 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDHr4Qr5FE&index=1&list=PLwwrHSl6ttefriCex1deAv70TULi-4b8e
Trey. Interview. "Trey Anastasio's Guitar Rig." 15 July 2013. Web. 13
Mar. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG-jXPQe1ak>.
Ralph. The Golden Age, Time Past. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 449-56. PrintGioia,
Ted. The History of Jazz. 2ndnd ed. New York: Oxford Press, 2011.
Bill. Improvisation in Jazz: Kind of Blue. New York: Columbia,
Interview by David Bryne. "Phish Interview with David Bryne."
Sessions at West 54th. PBS. 20 Oct. 1998. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.
Phish, n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. <http://phish.net/faq/audience.html>.
Miles. No, It Really is Them: Why It's Okay to Hate Phish. Esquire, 25 July
2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.
Benjamin. Phish Have Been a Band for Thirty Years Now and they Have Sucked the
Whole TIme. Vice, 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.
Ben. Can an Intelligent Person like Phish. LA Weekly , 2 Feb. 2012. Web. 13
Mar. 2016. <http://www.laweekly.com/music/can-an-intelligent-person-like-phish-2403552>.