WARNING: This piece is totally subjective and just some thoughts I decided to write down. I also have very little music theory education and therefore concepts may be more abstract. Feel free to send hate mail though.
Phish, to me, has always been the best jazz band on the planet since I learned about them in 1994 and probably historically since about 1989. Sure they rock out from time to time such as Character Zero or Cavern but the truth is Phish’s improvisation techniques are truly in the world of jazz. This makes how they operate different from the Grateful Dead, who were more in the bluegrass/Americana style of jamming, and Umphrey’s McGee, who are more in the progressive rock style of jamming. This is why people get into debates about which band was better, which is a horrible debate and shouldn’t exist because wach band has their own unique approach that are uncomparable. Some might the Dead’s more laid-back style better because there’s an easy living feeling to their jams. Umphrey’s pushes a little harder, making those who need a more “in your face” style, whcih leads some to think they’re better by being more aggressive in jams (especially if you gtew up during the recording industry’s loudness wars). Phish, with their history of playing jazz standards, feels little more rehearsed and calculated, especially now in their 30th year together. I’m not including the Holdsworth years for the sake of this piece because that won’t factor into band chemistry, important for this discussion. This feeling of hesitation, which was not present in their earlier years, has frustrated some fans into thinking that the band’s best days are behind them. In actuality, the best days are still right now. I’m gonna take a look at some things that suggest that.
Phish’s history of playing jazz begins, as far as the record goes, on April 15, 1986. Prior to that point, Phish had really been just playing the usual rock covers and Trey’s excellent early compositions but without the edge the songs have now. Early versions sound a little flat. The first jazz tune is short, only about a minute long, a cover of Miles Davis’ “All Blues” after Trey introduces them as the “Bob Dylan Band”, a fun juxtaposition of the band of a folk singer turned rock star playing a pre-rock era jazz standard from Miles’ 1959 album Kind of Blue. The timing of Phish’s first jazz cover is also interesting because it marks the the changeover from original member Jeff Holdsworth’s influences (The Dead and Allman Brothers) to new member Page McConnell’s influences (Bill Evans and Duke Ellington). Page talks about this transition and his influences if you track down a copy of his Goddard thesis “The Art of Improvisation”. It’s a fascinating read and I can e-mail you the text I have if you like. The transition is obviously not overnight but you can see it taking place in setlists from 4/15/86 onward, especially as Jeff leaves the band a month later on May 17, 1986. More jazz standards and jazzier Phish originals would follow. The whole tone of the band shifted in about 2 years and really created the Phish we all know and love today. Without Page McConnell, I don’t know if Phish would have evolved beyond bar/wedding band. There’s a reason where if I see any Phish tribute/cover band, I’m always drawn to the keyboards because you’re only as stong as your Page.
It was from this that Phish really began to incorporate jazz, maybe even more so than rock music in their most important period of development from 1988–1992, that transition from bars to theaters. It was also during this period, in two seasons Summer 1989 and Winter 1990–91, that Phish played gigs that were just jazz standards as the Johnny B. Fishman Jazz Ensemble with local horn players who would become the Giant Country Horns in 1991. Little is known about those gigs aside from mentions on Phish.com but it is believed they were nights were Phish would go in and not play originals but just play like any other jazz ensemble in Burlington, influenced by the jazz brunch at Sneakers, close to the band’s house in Winooski at the time. The Sneakers Jazz Band was amazing. They’ve reunited a few times and each time, I get really excited. I would go see them at the Discover Jazz festival and it was exciting to see them play as any headliner. Later, in middle school, I’d get to learn so much about jazz from their keyboard player Bruce Sklar that still resides with me this day. He told me that the only place to start is Kind of Blue, helped me learn Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” after I worked on learning it by ear on the piano, and helped me try and get a fraction of the way into playing Charlie Parker’s complex bop. So, when I picked up a copy of Hoist and the swing of “Julius” hit me hard, there was something about Phish that just stood out against Pearl Jam, or Smashing Pumpkins, or Green Day, or the hundreds of other 90s bands I could have become a fan of and, for me, I think that was how big a part of jazz is to the Phish ethos.
So why is a jazz ear so important when listening to Phish and how does it mean that the band is really great in 2016, when to some they seem to not be jamming enough or playing too many songs? I think it boils down to a few points. The first and most important is type I jams ARE STILL JAMS. Jazz has an interesting history where there has always been improvisation, but two eras of improvisation. The first era of jazz improvisation is from its origins to about the mid-1960s. You could consider this Type I jazz, the song’s have a certain chord structure and the soloist plays over it. The second era begins in 1958 with the introduction of Ornette Coleman. His revolutionary breaking of the tradition song structures kicked open free jazz and soon it was all over with Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis joining in towards the later half of the 1960s. This would be considered Type II jazz in the Phish world. But there was a time when both forms exists, especially in the case of Miles Davis, whose seminal album Kind of Blue was begin released AFTER Ornette had already started to make an impression. Type I jazz still exists today. It didn’t have to die because of new forms of expression. It’s also still really hard to improvise over a set chord structure, especially as twisted as some of those important Type I jams are such as “Stash,” “Antelope”, and “Bowie, and even harder to jam on 30 years and many drugs later. They shouldn’t be ignored and, in fact, most likely require more intense listening to find the small quirks that make them so captivating. There’s probably things in there that only the 4 of them pick up on and enjoy and talk about if the backstage no talking rule has been revoked.
The second factor is time and I mean that in two different ways. The first way time is a factor is 30 years of playing is only going to accelerate communication. Phish doesn’t need 30 minutes to hit a great musical idea anymore. They’ve been at it so long, and especially now that they’re 7 years reunited that a 10 minute jam might have the musical ideas they want to express. Take the Portland Tweezer. It’s a great compact Type II jam. Trey hits an amazing musical idea at 5:50 and the jam takes off. They’re satisfied and move on. Sure, some out there might want another musical idea but does that mean it’s a terrible jam? I don’t think so. I’ve replayed it a bunch just on Trey’s ability to find that moment and capitalize. They can do that faster with how much better they are playing as a unit. It doesn’t take as long to punch out an idea. When you listen to jazz recordings, some of the time limit was length of a side but does that make Sonny Rollins’ solo on “St. Thomas” any less breathtaking? No, that’s a performer who is confident on his instrument, laying down a fantastic musical idea. It doesn’t need to be Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing two instruments for 20 minutes. That’s no less great but a little straining at time.
The other issue of time is they’re older. “Tube” is a fun funk tune but it’s chord progression at times doesn’t really allow the band to go out there much unless they force it. So many of those are just Trey funk rhythm wank half the time. It’s fun for dancing but not terrible interesting musically. Maybe they’d rather play “Tide Turns” and say something different to audiences because of where they are as people TODAY. Maybe they’ll catch a musical idea and take it for a walk like “Breath and Burning” at the Mann and may be not. That’s what’s great about improvisation music, anything is in play. Trey soloing on “Number Line” can be as breathtaking (to me at least) at any moment as minute 22 of “Tweezer”. That’s what’s fascination about any improvisation and not just Type I vs. Type II. It’s all improvisation and Phish’s jazz chops shine through to make most tunes captivating. Anyone can be stunned by a Type II jam. It’s almost too easy at this point. Go back and listen to some of the long jams from 2.0 for that evidence. So many times of just taking it long with no real beauty. I’d take a succinct new tune well played over that any day personally.
Also relating to time, Mike also said in an interview before tour began, “Expect the unexpected,” which is actually probably Phish’s modus operandi since they become a major label act in 1991. They released “Down with Disease” instead of the more radio friendly “Sample in a Jar” as the lead single off Hoist. They don’t release “Strange Design”. They made one video and didn’t have someone else direct. They play the most requested cover album in a half-sold show in Utah AFTER the big Halloween show. They play a set of new songs on Halloween. They play a sound effects album of new songs the following Halloween. Why should this be any different? Maybe next “Tweezer” or “Chalk Dust” will be de-songed like Fluffhead and there will be new jam vehicles or no type II at all, like it was way back when. That’s the beauty of Phish, throw your expectations out the window and you’ll find the joy. Maybe find a different band that is still new and trying to establish their presence in finding familiarity. Phish has already done that and might be just trying to keep moving and not going stale. Phish is still the best jazz band on the planet, even if they do a little more rock and roll today. It’s just having an understanding of going beyond looking for Type II jams that make it fun, for me at least and perhaps also to the band. Sure, there’s been bad nights a plenty but a rough night for Phish beats a band just going through the motions. Alright, I’m ready for everyone to shit on me now but thanks for reading.