Jazz is Phish Explores Jam Band’s Deep Catalogue

Michael Weintrob

“It seems like where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing,” says drummer Adam Chase of Jazz is Phish.

As the leader of projects including The DAB Sessions and James Brown Dance Party, Chase has certainly acquired a diverse taste of musical influences over the years, but there’s something that keeps him coming back to cosmic compositions of that quirky quartet from Vermont.

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Phish was the first band I’d see do intricate compositional music in a rock ‘n’ roll setting,” he says. “Even if you aren’t a fan, there is a harmonic depth to their music.”

“It kind of hit me playing with these jazz cats that it would be kind of cool to hear how some of these guys would interpret [Phish] songs.” — Adam Chase

Chase, of course, is a fan who’s been to “more than his fair share” of Phish shows starting with his virgin trip at the 1997 summer tour opener at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater when he was 14 years old. He specifically recalls the epic “David Bowie,” which emerged from keyboardist Page McConnell’s first studio-recorded Phish composition, the bebop-y and now rarely played “Magilla,” and into a tease of jazz standard “Birdland” by Weather Report. Later on that night, the progressive rock pioneers took Dave Matthews Band saxophonist LeRoi Moore along for the ride through a psychedelic jam that featured every band member playing multiple instruments at once.

“It was the first time I’d seen any live performance like that,” he says. “I was openminded musically enough at that point to understand the things they were doing with improvisation, freedom of movement, change of theme and stuff that you don’t get at that level from a lot of rock bands. That was revelatory for me.”

Steeped in jazz influences from college, Chase started a cover band, Strange Design, after Phish broke up in 2004, that was dedicated to recreating specific shows from the group’s history, much like what Dark Star Orchestra does for The Grateful Dead.

“We got real deep in their catalogue,” says Chase. “At the time, it felt cool to keep the whole Phish thing alive. But when Phish came back, I didn’t want to keep doing it. I didn’t feel right about it.”

The experience had, however, rekindled his passion for the band’s catalogue of genre-spanning compositions.

“I fell back in love with it,” he says. “There is really nothing like this music.”

Since his hey-day of Phish phan-dom, Chase had migrated into various jazz and funk scenes around the country playing with the likes of Grammy-winning fusion act Snarky Puppy. So he had the bright idea to invite jazz musicians to explore this music with him. Since 2015 he’s been joined by Felix Pastorius, Michael Ray of Sun Ra, Dave Grippo of Giant Country Horns, Kofi Burbridge of Surrender To The Air and Natalie Cressman of Trey Anastasio Band to name few.

“It kind of hit me playing with these jazz cats that it would be kind of cool to hear how some of these guys would interpret these songs,” says Chase. “Phish’s lyrics can sometimes be a barrier for entry for some musicians, so we break down the music in an instrumental setting.”

The group worked with Phish’s publishing company to gain permission to rearrange and record the songs for their 2017 album, “He Never Spoke a Word.” So far, they’ve charted out about 40 of Phish’s nearly 400 songs into what Chase refers to a Real Book of Phish referencing the standard jazz songbook. Some tunes, such as the cyclical polyrhythms of “Foam” and the undeniably catchy head of “Cars Trucks Buses,” were always begging for jazz renditions; however, it’s on unsuspecting tunes like the garage rocker “46 Days,” the ever-ethereal “Ghost,” college joke ditty “Dog Log” and jam anthem “Tweezer” that Jazz is Phish find their truest footing.

This tour’s iteration features bassist John Daniel Ray of Vintage Astronaut, keyboardist Alric “A.C.” Carter of co-billing electrojam band Tauk, guitarist Lee Barbour and an L.A. horn section comprised of saxophonist Eddie Pimentel and trumpeter Aaron Janik.

“We’re bringing some of the best musicians in the world to dig into the Phish catalogue with me, taking it apart and putting it back together,” says Chase. “They stand along Frank Zappa on the level of sophistication in a rock ‘n’ roll setting. There’s no other project I have that gets me to do these 13-minute improvisation songs with fun melodies over weird time signatures. You learn this when you’re young and your mind is blown, but when you come back to it after years of playing, it’s a testament to how great these songs are.” | crystalbaycasino.com