A Free-Form Jazz Exploration Of Phish

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A Phish fan


Hygiene, maybe, but you can't knock a Phish fan for lack of sincerity. Photo Credit: Cory Schwartz/Getty Images

All this week, fellow NPR Music blogger Carrie Brownstein is conducting a little experiment: she's trying to become a Phish fan. The band, she writes, is one "that some people intuitively don't like; it is the liverwurst, the Twilight book series, and the waterbeds of the music industry!" Which is why she's trying to give them a fair shake. Follow along at Monitor Mix.

This is all somewhat relevant to jazz, I swear. Just give me a minute.

Like many people who waited out their adolescence in a predominantly white, relatively affluent, progressive Midwestern suburb, I grew up with plenty of people who listened to Phish and/or participated in jam-band culture at large. I'll confess to owning a few "tapes" and burned copies of studio albums, but I never fully threw myself into that arena. I've never been to a show, and I wasn't so much into doing the drugs which seemed to accompany that scene as I saw it in high school.

I then went to college in New York City, where many were too hip to admit their Phish fandom (phandom?), and during a time when the Internet Music Revolution was beginning to hit Web 2.0. The band would break up not long afterward, at which point all the cool kids were already throwing themselves into the indie rock scene and purchasing increasingly form-fitting garments. Phish had seemingly become an afterthought among my generation of fans.

Five years later, they're back, and my Twitter feed began lighting up with "OMG Phish at Fenway #phish" notices, and it hit me: Phish represents a business model for music that was ahead of its time, one that jazz could maybe take a few cues from.

I know that's a stretch, but hear me out. For one, the entity that is Phish is generally considered inseparable from its fanbase, which ranks as among the most devoted in music. In common perception, to be a Phish fan is to be an unwashed, patchouli-wearing, psychoactive drug-consuming, somehow socially-disabled member of an unthinking herd. Phish isn't so much a musical reference for many of its detractors as it is an allusion to a community of people who get off on comparing versions of "Bathtub Gin" or what-have-you.

For those of us with a commitment to jazz — any form of it — do you not get that stereotyping in some way? OK, so these days there are free outdoor concerts all the time in summer months, and they attract diverse crowds who largely come out to picnic on lawns with ambient noise. But the core audience, which willingly pays good money to see a jazz show in a club or a theater, is also seen as a special breed. They're all someone's weird uncle. They possess encyclopedic knowledge of recording dates and personnel. They wear turtlenecks and fedoras and horn-rimmed glasses. They, too, give themselves over to the ecstasy of the jam, which just looks embarrassing taken out of context. And because non-jazz people see jazz as one distinct style, rather than many different things, all dedicated jazz fans get lumped into that snooty horde.

Both are unfair characterizations, true. But at least for Phish, it comes out of a certain reality. By prioritizing live shows over studio recordings, Trey Anastasio and company made the band into a brand. Having fun was encouraged, as was amateur recording — the exchange of which only bolstered the emphasis that "you have to see them live." Indeed, Carrie has observed this was a stumbling point in approaching the band: "many Phish fans have told me point blank that the live show is the only true way to witness this band, and that in lieu of that experience, only the recordings of their live shows (and then only certain shows) exemplify Phish at its best." Of course, Phish even pioneered this model pre-YouTube and viral Internet distribution and widespread broadband. With the launch of LivePhish.com, where the band sells soundboard recordings of live shows, Phish even found a way to monetize the artifacts of its experience.

Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell


"Page, I don't want to do a free-form jazz exploration in front of a festival crowd — oh wait." Photo Credit: Scott Gries/Getty Images

Most jazz musicians can't afford to tour so extensively (at least stateside), and those who can often play the festival circuit to intent-listening audiences. Even so, jazz also remains, first and foremost, a live performance art — especially stacked up against much of modern pop. Can anybody truly appreciate jazz, especially its hairier forms, without seeing it performed live? Our genre certainly has its share of studio-crafted headphone masterpieces, but casual jazz fans don't become Lifelong Jazz Fans without seeing firsthand the marvel that is masterful improvisation.

To their credit, some of today's top jazz artists are offering their live recordings — which is easier than ever to do well — as downloads. David Binney and Dave Douglas (here I go, mentioning him again on this Web site) both sell their live recordings; others choose to give them away for free in the hopes of simply spreading their gospels. (See our Live At The Village Vanguard archive, at NPR.org/villagevanguard, for a few great downloadable sets from Bill McHenry, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Terence Blanchard and more.) For dedicated fans who like to track their favorite artists' every move, this is manna from the heavens; for people new to the music, it's the ultimate welcoming gift. We jazz folk don't live in a closed-off sphere, it says: it can't hurt to see what we're about in our natural stage environments.

One more observation before I kill this already-too-long musing. At the one and only International Association of Jazz Educators conference I ever attended — which was both negative shock and positive awe at once — one of the big topics among jazz radio program directors was how they were using acts commonly associated with the jam-band circuit to develop more listeners. I remain dubious that acts like Medeski Martin & Wood, Soulive, Marco Benevento and other jazz-jam straddlers are the way forward to attract new, younger audiences to jazz at large — especially at this epoch of jam-band history — but it seems to be working for at least a few people. In fact, over at Monitor Mix, several of the commenters so far have mentioned they dig Phish for the virtuosity and jazz-styled improvisation the band occasionally pursues.

This is important. Derek Bailey said it well, and soberly, when he wrote, "improvisation is generally viewed as a musical conjuring trick, a doubtful expedient, or even a vulgar habit." It's at least why we all laugh at the "free-form jazz exploration" scene in This Is Spinal Tap. What Phish is miraculously able to do, at least for its fans, is to make them accept improvisation — in fact, to make a large group of people embrace a music which comes out differently every time. Forget the cult following for a moment; their music has reached a large audience with a message of openness, participation, community and skilled improvising. It only seems logical that a smart jazz businessman might adopt part of the model which fostered such a fanbase.

All that said, I still have never seen, and have no immediate plans to ever see Phish perform live. But that's perhaps beside the point.

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