Freedom to Improvise

4 07 2011

Phish is completing its ninth Super Ball, a multi-day gathering in Watkins Glen, NY, by latching onto the key component of jazz, improvisation, and holding an audience in the tens of thousands spellbound with its power to tell a story musically.

That improvisation, an ancient musical art, can be so popular with a youthful following remains in itself both surprising and reassuring. John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, critical influences on the Grateful Dead during the early ’60s, would be right at home at the Super Ball. Phish and the Dead share the gene of rock and will always be linked no matter how dissimilar their approaches. But improvisation will always be their great connection.

Believer magazine interviews Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio about the crucial ingredient in the band’s music.

BLVR: Who were the important improvisers for you?

TA: I liked Clapton, Jimmy Page. But there was this one year that changed me. It was when I saw Pat Metheny. He came to Richardson Auditorium, and he was playing with a jazz, harmonic vocabulary but with a pop sensibility. I saw King Crimson around that time, too. Robert Fripp was playing these crazy mathematical patterns. He’d be playing in a time signature of 7/4 while the other guy, Adrian Belew, played in 5/4, and they’d meet up thirty-five notes later. This kind of thing. But you have to put yourself in 1978. I was born in ’64. So I was fourteen. I saw Stanley Jordan in that same place. And Wynton Marsalis. All those concerts were in one year, and that’s the year I got into improvisation.

Here are some great postwar improvisers at work. This progressive and adventurous strand  of music is a fabulous way to celebrate freedom this Fourth of July.

Mike Gordon & Stick Men, Live

29 05 2011

Two bassists with muscular, melodic styles who don’t mind improvising in front of an audience. Tony Levin’s a permanent sideman, even in his own band, Stick Men; he’ll soon gravitate to different players and it’ll still sound like he’s the architect. Mike Gordon’s consistent pleasure in playing live with Phish is evident from the fall 2010 tour with his own band.

Here are two fresh and vigorous live performances available as a free  download or to stream. This is music worth buying.

There’s not a duff musician in the bunch and as bands they’re not afraid to stretch out.

Download Mike Gordon, live, 11-16-10, Minneapolis, here. It’s well played jammy rock fusion. Not necessarily in that order. It’s a happy performance that sounds loosely familiar with twists. The mp3 soundboard has enough bass to hold down the bottom. You don’t know most of the songs; it won’t matter. In the best jam band tradition, the party continues if you leave the room and it’s still bubbling when you walk back in and notice the band’s ripping through Alanis Morissette’s Hand in Pocket or Little Feat’s Sailing Shoes. The Any Griffith Show theme has a did-I-really-just-hear-that cameo. It’s not a mood breaker but a mood enhancer. Yes, humor belongs in music if it’s done right. The production is a warehouse-y echo with just enough slapback to make it shimmer. The performance never lags, always leans ahead, and refuses to go flat.

Stream the Stick Men show, or buy a download, here. It’s a night on Stick Men’s 2011 South American tour, a 2-track recording straight from the mixing board.

Pat Mastelotto is predictably rock solid. He was one of King Crimson’s cleanest and leanest drummers. HIs work on the early 2000s Crimson tours is some of the most enjoyable performances that band ever produced.

It’s always a pleasure to hear Tony Levin play bass. Or Stick. Or whatever’s at hand. He brings a willingness to experiment at a solid gait. This Buenos Aires show never drifts too far from Crimson’s shadow. That says much about Tony Levin’s influence on Robert Fripp.

Yes, That’s Indiscipline in Spanish. Nice changeup. The 14+ minutes of Slow Glide sound like early ’80s Talking Heads. That’s a compliment. There is never enough Westernized African-trance rock to go around.

There’s another live Stick Men show to stream here, an audience bootleg from the same South American tour. Monte Video is another crafted and unrestrained performance and the audio quality is just fine.

All these recordings are free to listen to now. Enjoy this embarrassment of riches while driving, or with headphones, or ambiently. The performances are strong enough to eat up all three.