Once upon a time, Phish jams routinely stretched past the fifteen minute mark, exploring funk textures and various other musical realms before coming to rest. Beginning in 1994 with “Bowies” and “Tweezers,” but more earnestly developing during the groove era of 1997-2000, the long jam became a fixture at Phish shows. Four-song sets, dance marathons, loose ambient experiments, meandering psychedelia; all of these were parts and parcels of bygone eras in Phish history. These days, while the band still drops jams that push fifteen minutes every now and again, highlights of fall shows have most often been their more compact ten to twelve minute excursions. A growing trend of musical density that was born last fall is now coming to fruition with directed, collaborative playing that continues to hit the sweet spot.
One of the most interesting parts of these compact jaunts is how much longer they feel in concert. Bombarding the audience with layers of musical ideas, these living pieces of improvisation create a time warp, stretching a ten-minute period to something that feels much longer. With seemingly effortless collaboration, and without over-thinking, the band is diving into their pieces with urgency, making good things happen right away. This is not to say Phish is being impatient – they are not – they have honed their improvisational conversations and are simply taking less time into the meat of jams. Playing with a precision and tightness unseen since in eras, the newest Phish music has a distinctly retro vibe while simultaneously pushing themselves into the future.
There have only been two (non-“YEM”) jams that have reached fifteen minutes thus far – Broomfield’s “Ghost” and Charleston’s “Crosseyed and Painless” – and the latter only got there with two lyrical reprises and three segments of improv. More than ever, with current Phish, time is nothing and music is everything. The most intense and impressive jams of the last five shows have landed smack dab in the nine to twelve minute range, something that is always a surprise upon download. There is no need to list all of the highlights that fit this framework, for they are plentiful and everyone has the tapes. But the point is that, now, Phish can be both exploratory and concise in one jam. Some obvious examples are Broomfield’s “Twist,” “Split,” and “Carini,” and Charleston’s “Disease,” “Sand,” and “Tweezer.” The band has made powerful musical statements in far shorter times, increasing the impact of each individual jam on the psyche.
Trust me, I would still love to see the band drop twenty minute jams a la The Greek’s “Light” or Alpine’s “Disease > What’s the Use?” and I’m sure that they will; it just doesn’t matter any more. Phish can just as easily play outstanding shows laced with ten to twelve minute jams a la Broomfield’s second and third nights. With the intensity of their communication better than it has been since their return, these dense pieces are only becoming more interesting. With five down and nine to go, it will be interesting to track to watch the course Phish jams over the second two-thirds of tour and to see if this trend continues.
Notes From the Road: As the scene shifts from South to North tonight, so does the mode of transport from plane to car. Tonight’s show in Augusta, Maine is followed by an all-night cannonball run to Utica, hence, I’m not sure when my review will be posted.
Frank Zappa – “We’re Only In It For the Money“
King Crimson – “Lark’s Tongue In Aspic” (w/ Robert Fripp on second guitar)