Now that the dust has settled on what was, by most accounts, a stellar summer tour that continued the glory of 2013’s Fall Tour and New Year’s runs, we can begin to take assessments on all the shows from a slightly more objective standpoint. There’s no possibility that the next show will contain “the jam of the summer” (not counting the Labor Day weekend at Dick’s, which is really sort of its own mini-run). Taking the month of shows as a whole, to me the jam of the summer is, without a doubt, the “Chalkdust”>”Light”>”Tweezer” from the last night of Randall’s Island, 7/13/14.
Granted, there is a bounty of standout jams throughout the summer: the “Fuego”s from SPAC, Philly, and Portsmouth, the “Limb by Limb” from SPAC, the Philly “Chalksuit,” the Randall’s “Gin,” the Chicago “Wombat,” the surprise “Wedge,” the Chicago “Ghost,” the Portsmouth “Meatstick,” and practically every “Hood.” And of course there’s the second set of MPP2, 7/27/14, which in my opinion falls into that “unratable” category that Charlie Dirksen used to use for certain “YEM”s because there’s just no way to compare it to anything else (and there really isn’t, it creates its own category).
But for a single jam without all the setlist calisthenics of 7/27/14 II, and only taking into consideration the inventiveness, creativity, profundity, variety, form, and arc of the improvisation, I don’t think it gets any better than the “Chalkdust”>”Light”>”Tweezer.” Feel free to disagree with me, the beauty of our fanbase is that we all have our own opinions and no one has to think the same way.
Here’s three thoughts that occurred to me as I was re-listening Tuesday on a long solo drive:
1) This is one, long “piece” of music
Bear with me on this one.
Yes, it’s three different songs, in three distinct keys, with three distinct tempos. But when I consider the overall arc of the 55 minutes that span from the slower-than-usual opening riff of “Chalkdust” to the tongue-in-cheek botched ending of “Tweezer,” I perceive it as a series of episodes, each one with their own rhythmic character, key, melodic material, timbre, and “feel,” that esoteric affective category that is impossible to put into words. Some of these episodes are what I call “jam segments,” a short 3-5 minute span of music united by key, groove, timbre, and melodic ideas. Some of these episodes are the composed “song” portions of “Light” and “Tweezer” with lyrics. However, taken as a whole, the composed sections of “Light” and “Tweezer” with lyrics are just two other episodic stopping points on the long road from “Chalkdust” jam to “Tweezer” end.
Part of this is because there is no peak in “Chalkdust.” I’ll say that again because it’s worth realizing how crazy this is: in roughly 24 minutes of improvisation, Phish never once builds to a peak of register, rhythm, and dynamics. This is significant in and of itself, not because all great Phish jams peak (as we learned in the summer of 1995 and re-learned in 1997), but because the gradual build to an ecstatic release is such a stock part of Phish’s improvisational vocabulary. It’s the process for practically every pre-1993 version of “Hood,” “Mike’s Song,” “Slave,” “Stash,” “Bowie,” “Antelope,” and “YEM” – the songs during which improvisation was most likely to occur prior to 1993. And it remains the process for most versions of these songs even today. In fact, of the “big” jamming songs, only “Tweezer” doesn’t have a peak built into its structure, and even so, many versions of the song do just that, including most before 1994.
However, the 4-chord descending jam in the Randall’s “Light,” and then later the 2-chord plagal jam in “Tweezer” provide the entire 55-minute passage with two grand peaks, ones that follow the established patterns of cathartic release and simultaneous exultation that we associate with tunes like “Bowie” or “Antelope.” In fact, the circular riffs that Trey plays during the “Light” peak are reminiscent of the climactic “Bowie” riff.
Alone, the “Chalkdust” jam is amazing, for certain. As are the “Light” and “Tweezer” jams, although I think less interesting than “Chalkdust.” Yet, each of these three songs mutually reinforces and augments the other. The ecstasy of release that eludes in the “Chalkdust” jam is realized in each of the subsequent songs, while the shorter “Light” and “Tweezer” jams are bolstered by their appearance after such a monumentally shapeshifting piece of improvisation in the “Chalkdust.” How many times has Phish given us a standout piece of improv at the beginning of set 2, only to then follow it with a series of excellent but not improvisationally-fascinating songs? (I’m lookin at you, CMAC and Mann1). The “Light” and “Tweezer” are that much better because they came after that “Chalkdust.” Ontology plays a big part, here.
Because each song segues into the next (not particularly spectacularly, but the music never stops), there was never an opportunity to take stock of what’s been happening. When “Tweezer” finally ends, you can hear the audience let out a collective, awestruck exhale, because that single piece of music, the “Chalklightweezer” if you will, finally ended and we could applaud, high-five, and generally look around with that sense of “can you believe that just happened!?!?!”
We needed that “Velvet Sea.” We needed to take stock of what had just happened. Listen to the AUDs – there’s practically no one talking during this ballad. That’s because we’re speechless.
2) Fishman maintains the tempo the entire way through “Chalkdust”
Again, this bears repeating: for 24 minutes of wildly varied improvisation, the tempo DOES NOT CHANGE. This is especially exciting because Fishman is known as a drummer who generally does not play the same beat two measures in a row. He’s an acolyte of Zappa’s drummers (read his fantastic liner notes essay on his edition of the Zappa Picks series), who are equally unable to repeat a measure identically. In many of my favorite Phish jams—e.g. the 7/13/03 “Seven Below,” the Went “Gin,” the 12/14/95 “Halley’s”>”NICU”>”Slave” (another single “piece” of music, FWIW),” the 4/3/98 “Roses”—important jam segments are differentiated by varying tempos, which is all Fish’s doing. Even when someone else in the band changes their rhythm, unless Fishman speeds up or slows down, the tempo remains the same because it is the drums against which we base our perception of meter. Any other variations, especially from Trey or Page but also from Mike, are subdivisions or metric dissonance.
For a great example of this, during the “Tweezer,” it is Fish who decides, suddenly, to just immediately cut to about quarter-speed during the jam. The rest of the band keeps playing, and who sounds like they are “out of tempo”? The rest of the band!
During the “Chalkdust” jam, Fishman manages to vary the rhythm from one jam segment to the next by trying new subdivisions of the beat and styles of offbeat playing, all while keeping the basic pulse steady. He switches from a straight rock beat at the outset to playing more fills between beats on the snare. During the highly dissonant section after the major key “Mike’s Song” fakeout (which occurs around 15:00 on the LivePhish recording), he adds in more toms and gets rid of the steady bass drum, but still the same tempo. And when the jam finally enters its final, quietest section, he’s riding on the cymbals with light tom strokes, but again, same tempo. This only reinforces my theory that we should consider “Chalklightweezer” as one piece of music, because the desired tempo variants only come with the new songs.
And the tempo is fast! So many of the great jams in Phish history take place at a relatively moderate tempo because the songs they came from have moderate tempos: “Stash,” “Bathtub Gin,” “Mike’s Song,” “Tweezer” (which sometimes has a lethargic tempo!), “Bowie” (the beginning of the jam), “Carini,” “Ghost,” “Waves,” “Seven Below,” “Reba.” But “Chalkdust,” even though this version is slower than usual, is fast rock and roll.
3) Trey seems to be thinking more about the form and structure of his melodic phrasing during jams
Trey was teasing the Sonny Rollins tune “St. Thomas” a bunch this summer, and it comes out during the Randall’s “Light” jam in the quiet section before the big descending 4-chord jam. But he doesn’t just tease the theme. He plays the entire main phrase, an 8-measure melody broken into 4 shorter phrases. These phrases follow one of the stock melodic archetypes of American popular music as it became defined in the 1920s Tin Pan Alley songs (which later became the backbone of swing jazz in the 1930s and bebop in the 40s): SRDC, or statement, restatement, departure, conclusion (e.g. the verse to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” or “Eight Days a Week”). This itself is related to the idea of a melodic period which was popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, from composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.
Why does Trey insert something with so much structure into something that is melodically structure-less? My hunch is that Trey is thinking about the formal phrasing of his improvisational melodies in a slightly more structured way, and the full “St. Thomas” melody is a pre-existing idea that fits with his current style of playing. It lacks the pure freedom of his jamming in the eruptive, Coltrane-esque style, and so in some ways it doesn’t quite feel as “improvisational.” This isn’t new, Trey has been doing this for his entire career (listen to ANY version of “Hood” from 1991, but especially 11/30/91 for a great example), but in a way he’s being more restrained and controlled with his use of it, creating even larger architectures of form within the improvisational space.
Listen to Trey during the third main jam segment of “Chalkdust,” starting around 12:20, excerpted below. He latches onto a rhythmic strumming idea, playing an anacrusis of two IV chords on the last two eighths notes of each measure falling to a I chord on the ensuing first beat of the next measure. He does this for about 8 measures, which establishes the hypermetric parameters – essentially, he’s thinking about 8 measure units. Remember that, because Trey already has. At 12:43 (0:21 on above excerpt), he crafts a beautiful 2-bar melody with a distinctive beginning, middle, and end (statement). He then pauses for a beat, allowing the phrase to settle, and then repeats the idea (restatement). But it’s not just rote repetition. He then goes to another contrasting idea (departure) still based on the shape and pattern of the basic idea or Grundgestalt, and finally returns to a slight variant of the original (conclusion), spicing it up with added syncopation. Total length of melody: 8 measures. Each phrase is the same length, about 2 measures, and there’s a rest at the end of each phrase.
In this way, Trey tricks our minds into hearing his improvisation as a pre-determined melody, because it has the structure and form of a composed melody. He then returns to the IV-IV-I chording exactly as he introduced the melody, again, for 8 measures. Like vamping between verses while Page offers swirling organ melodies. And then the pièce-de-resistance: he repeats the entire SRDC melody AGAIN, almost exactly but with slight differences, and significantly, with a slightly different set of effects which gives it a new timbre. Second verse. When this is over, he continues with another new idea that will eventually lead to the “Mike’s Song”-style fakeout around 15:00.
Why is this important? With Fishman not varying the tempo, and with no peak, we need melodic variety to give each of the jam segments of “Chalkdust” its own unique character. Not only does Trey play different melodies, but he is playing different melodic styles. The way I hear it, there are parts of this jam which are kind of a fast country-rock modal jamming, then there’s the strumming chordal-leads, then this aforementioned formal periodic structure, then a gnarly dissonant and repetitive part, and then finally a minimalistic section.
These are just some thoughts that occurred to me driving over the Green Mountains and listening to this 55 minutes of ecstasy for the umpteenth time. More to come later…