Holly Bowling on Phish’s Inspiration and Translating Classic Jams to Piano

Live improvisational jams are some of the most amazing live musical experiences to behold. It’s a musical adventure where you have literally no idea where the artists on stage are going to take you — and sometimes they don’t even know — it just happens.

So imagine taking an improvised piece of music, one with a myriad of sonic twists, and turns, and transforming it into an epic piano arrangement. One that beautifully captures not only the essence of the improvised piece, but hits it note-for-note.

Well, that’s exactly what Holly Bowling has done.

The prolific piano player made her name by translating Phish’s famed jam on their iconic song “Tweezer” (specifically from a July 2013 show in Lake Tahoe), and turning it into a piece on the piano. Since accomplishing that monumental achievement she has gone on to translate more songs by Phish, as well as The Dead, and she an undeniable favorite in the jam scene.

We caught up with Holly Bowling to talk about her love of Phish, translating classics onto the piano, and more as she gets set to play Jams on the Sand in Asbury Park, NJ.

You’re known for your love of Phish, and taking their songs and translating them into jams on the piano. What is it about Phish that inspires you to create music?

The number one thing about Phish that inspires me is their improvisation. It’s not “pick a key and everyone take a turn taking a solo” – it’s collective improvisation, as a group. This is what keeps me going back to their shows, and what initially sparked the idea to transcribe and arrange their music for solo piano.

There’s also a style of composition that I love about Phish that is very unique to them – in particular some of the stuff that’s unconventional or maybe a little less approachable initially. Anything that takes several listens to figure out what’s going on intrigues me and is really interesting to work with as source material. So the songs themselves are really fun to arrange as well. But the thing that makes me keep going back to their music and the place where I draw the most inspiration is the improvisation. The ability to let new themes and new music develop in the moment out of the group’s collective efforts – and the risk-taking required to create that space and possibility – is really what does it for me. And I draw inspiration from this in two ways.

The first is through these jam transcriptions I do, where I write out and arrange a piece of Phish (or the Grateful Dead’s) improvisation and turn it into a composition for piano. And the second is in my own improvisation, which has really been shaped in both its style and its scope by the way Phish improvises together. Their music, more than anyone else’s, defines for me what group improvisation can and should be.

You translated Phish’s “Tweezer” from their 7/31/13 Lake Tahoe gig, which is 37 minutes long, into a solo piano arrangement. How long did this take you to do, and can you talk about the intricacies of taking an improved onstage piece and turning it into a piano piece?

Transcribing and arranging the Tahoe “Tweezer” took me about a year. Some weeks I would work on it every free moment and all hours of the night, and some weeks I would only manage to put in a few hours. It was a huge project and I don’t think I realized just exactly how big of an undertaking it was going to be when I started. The project just kept growing as I got deeper into it and I was too geeked on it to put the brakes on.

I had never really done something like this before so I learned a lot along the way. One of the biggest things I realized is the importance of not being too literal. First of all, you don’t always have the option to do exactly what was done originally. There’s stuff you can’t do on the piano because of the limitations of the instrument. For example – you can hold a note on the organ indefinitely, but the piano can’t sustain indefinitely. Also, you can’t repeat the same note as fast on a piano as you can on a guitar – the mechanics just don’t allow for it. And you can’t slide from one note to another or pitch bend. There’s ways to emulate those sounds in some cases, but you can’t do an exact recreation. And then there’s places where it’s possible to be very literal in the interpretation but it doesn’t sound good even though it’s technically very accurate.

Getting the arrangement to be true to the music sometimes means doing it differently than the original performance. It’s more important to capture the shape of the phrase, the direction it’s moving, the texture, the energy, the feeling of the section or the emotion behind it, than it is to play all the notes exactly the way they were played. This goes for the sense of space too. I think in terms of a three-dimensional soundstage a lot when I’m listening to four or six musicians and deciding how to represent them on one instrument, and I’ll alter things from the transcription to the arrangement to try to build a space with the same kind of depth on the piano.

For example, I might change the octave and move a line higher or lower than it was originally to space it away from other parts and place it more in the foreground or the background. Or I might combine parts or add notes in the bass line that weren’t originally there to simulate the weight the drums placed on a certain beat. I have to work with the limited timbres my instrument provides to try to create a sense of space on the piano that somehow alludes to all of the different dimensions created by a much large collection of instruments. Rather than trying to play it all precisely note-for-note, I had to learn to use the tools my instrument provides to capture what the music is trying to say. Sometimes playing the notes exactly as they were is the worst possible way to actually play the music.

Is there a Phish song that you’re dying to cover? Conversely, have there been any you haven’t been able to master yet?

I’d like to do the entire Rift album at some point, but “Mound” and “All Things Reconsidered” are major challenges that I haven’t figured out how I want to approach yet. I also really want to do another jam transcription. I started the [a version of] Bathtub Gin (a.k.a. the “Went Gin”) over a year ago and just haven’t had time to work on it. I love that jam. I can’t wait to spend some quality time alone with that thing. I think we need to take a weekend getaway together or something.

You’re jamming with Tom Hamilton’s American Babies in Asbury Park, and Pennsylvania soon. What can live audiences expect from you as a part of the American Babies shows?

Those shows are gonna be so much fun. We’ve played together a few times now, and the more you get to know each other, both as musicians and as human beings, the more risk-taking it allows for – which musically I think always makes things more interesting. So I’m excited. Also, it’s refreshing for me to get to stretch out on instruments besides the piano. Keyboard instruments vary so much in how they behave and the space they fill, it’s really a whole different thing – as is playing with a band versus playing solo. For these shows I’m doing a solo set first and then joining American Babies for their set, so I get to play both sides of the coin in the same night.

Your last two records reimagined the songs of Phish, and The Dead on piano. Are there any other bands you’re looking to take on with your piano?

I’ve done one-offs of CSNY and Ani DiFranco, I’ve done a few songs by the Disco Biscuits… actually one of my favorite moments from a performance is the time I played “Wake Up” by Rage Against The Machine. It was on this beautiful grand piano in a venue that used to be a church, on inauguration day. It was a total collision of worlds – it’s not how or where you’d expect to hear their music, which is a dynamic I’m always drawn to. I did a bunch of stuff inside the piano, I palm-muted the really low bass strings and the way the sound carried in that space was just awesome. Super dark and heavy. It translated exactly the way I wanted it to, even though Rage and solo piano are an unlikely pairing.

So there’s been a handful of songs by other bands, but nothing that I’m looking to dive into to the extent that I have with Phish and the Dead. I guess I’m always open to the idea, but lately I’ve been turning a lot of my energy and focus to working on my own originals. It’s been really interesting actually – as much as it can be hard to switch gears between arranging and writing, it’s also created a really good balance. On the one side, there’s the mental workout of transcribing and learning a bunch of material by ear, and the process of condensing the sound of a full band down to a solo piano piece and coming up with a convincing arrangement.

And then on the other side, I’m working from my own ideas in my head or that I come up with on my piano or guitar and then conceptualizing these ideas into the frame of a larger sound, with more instruments and a whole different palette of tonal color. One process is distilling the music down to its essence; the other one is exploding it outwards and letting ideas expand. So it’s been interesting to have both of these things going on at the same time.

Any new records planned for the near future?

Well, I’m definitely taking these original songs I’ve been working on into the studio at some point. They’re still a work in progress but that’s going to be the next album. I also have hours and hours worth of arrangements of Phish and the Dead that I’d love to record and release eventually. Like a Part 2 to each of the albums I’ve put out so far. But that’s on the back burner for now.

What are you looking forward to most for the rest of the summer, and for the rest of 2017?

This summer I’m really looking forward to playing Lock’n and Peach, and I’m REALLY excited about these shows I have coming up in NYC at the Cutting Room (Phish Pre-Shows). I’m playing the entire Gamehendge suite at two of the four shows, which I’ve never done before but have been wanting to do forever so I’m super stoked. A lot of it is brand new material for me so I’ve been putting together all these new arrangements and having so much fun working on them and assembling it all together and finding the arc that makes it into a cohesive whole.

Then for the rest of 2017, I’m on the road a bunch, hitting some new venues this fall that I can’t wait to play at and returning to some familiar favorites. I think more than anything though I’m really excited to continue developing these originals and see how they evolve. It’s gonna be a good year!

Holly Bowling performs tonight at Jams on the Sand, at The Anchor’s Bend at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey along with Tom Hamilton’s American Babies. Admission is free.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites