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Adam Chase of Jazz is PHSH on the Joys & Complexities of Reinterpreting Phish

Jazz is Phish
Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

Well, you know what they say — go big or go home, right?

For Adam Chase there’s no better way to “go big” than take the highly complex, and improvisational stylings of the iconic jam band Phish, and then reinterpret them through the highly complex, and improvisational lens of jazz.

The result of this undertaking is Jazz is PHSH, an all-star collective of immensely talented musicians performing beautifully arranged and wildly original (yet starkly familiar) re-arrangements of Phish songs. The sound is absolutely incredible — it’s as dynamic and sonically consuming as the source material, yet is distinctly its own thing.

Chase, who serves as musical director for the band, caught up with us as Jazz is PHSH embarks on a brief winter tour in the Northeast. We spoke about the origin of the band, the process of reinterpretation, and the collective he’s gathered for this run.

Take us to Day 1 of this band, or even before Day 1—where did the idea to create a jazz tribute to Phish come from?

The music of Phish was a major source of inspiration for me as a young musician. The complexity of their compositions and the mastery of their improvisation was a major factor in what led me to the path of studying music seriously. In the process of growing as a musician, I went through a long period of time where I stopped listening to Phish and focused on studying and transcribing my favorite jazz songs while discovering a ton of new music.

Then, around the time that Phish reunited in 2009, I had begun to revisit the Phish catalogue as well as dive into the history of the band and how they grew into the cultural phenomenon they have become. Being in a place in life where my understanding of music theory and composition had grown leaps and bounds from where it was when I was going to Phish shows as a teenager, I found a much deeper understanding and respect for their music than ever before. It occurred to me that some of Phish’s more intricate compositions were unique and inspiring, and that they deserved at least a place in music education, if not fully embraced and added to the “Real Book” of jazz along compositions like Frank Zappa’s “Peaches En Regalia.”

From the desire to introduce the music of Phish to the jazz community, it crossed my mind that something similar to the Grateful Dead tribute, “Jazz Is Dead” that featured jazz legends like Billy Cobham, Alphonso Johnson and Jimmy Herring, would be fitting for a band like Phish that has always been linked to the Grateful Dead anyway. Hence, creating “Jazz Is Phsh.”

Phish is a wildly improvisational band. How did you decide on which songs, and which versions of these songs to cover?

In building our repertoire, initially, I picked songs that I thought were going to excite musicians that had never listened to Phish. With that, a lot of our initial songs were more of the complex tunes, including songs like “Foam,” “Weigh” and “Dinner & A Movie.” With the improvisational element of Phish as well as jazz being a factor, I tried to pick a few songs that would lend themselves to exploratory improvisation as well and balance the two accordingly.

Ultimately, I am picking my personal favorite Phish songs when it comes down to it.

In the same vein, explain the process of taking these Phish songs and reinterpreting them through the lens of Jazz?

With each arrangement, I try to incorporate three pieces into the process of reinterpretation. Obviously, we start with the Phish song and contemplate the melody of the song. Often, we re-harmonize a melody for the horn section and chart out the anticipated form to get a starting point. From there, we consider the structure of the song and put time into writing alternative chord changes and groove feels. Once we have a few options, we contemplate complementary jazz songs that could be mashed together.

Once I have all the pieces, I get whatever group of musicians will be on the next run together and start hashing out all the concepts to see what sounds the best. At this stage, there is opportunity for group input. Sometimes the group input takes it so far from the original intent, we have to revisit step one and rewrite the charts completely.

While this is the typical process some of the arrangements—like “Foam” and “Divided —were songs that I had a full idea for before bringing it to the table so for those, the process was a little more preconceived and less open to the process.

What’s a song you’ve yet to cover from the Phish catalog that you’re dying to work on?

“Big Black Furry Creatures From Mars” has been on my mind for several weeks and I have a very distinct vision for how to put it together. I’m very excited about it and I may find a way to debut it on this run…if I can arrange the charts in time!

You’re working with an all-star lineup of musicians this tour including: Adam Chase, Felix Pastorious (Hipster Assassins), John Culbreth (Naughty Professor) and Yesseh Furaha-Ali, Bob Lanzetti (Snarky Puppy) and Justin Stanton (Snarky Puppy). Can you talk about what these guests bring to the table for your tour?

The all-star approach is a very fun part of the band. By having a rotating cast of musicians and only pulling from the most talented and capable musicians in the scene, it allows the songs to find new life each and every time they are played.

While many of the jam scene musicians know Phish well, a lot of the jazz players that we bring in are not hip to the music of Phish. It is fun to introduce the music of Phish to such amazing players and even more fun to see what these musicians do with the songs when they have no preconceived notions of how the songs have been played by Phish.

Ultimately, it allows the music to be performed in a way that is extremely unique and exciting!

What has proven to be the most difficult song to adapt?

As of now, it has been a challenge to adapt the song “Taste.”

“Taste” is a song that I absolutely love and I think my attachment to the original version might be what has held up the arranging process. We have been sitting on the charts for almost a year now and have made a couple attempts to rework the tune.

This is part of the reason that I love bringing musicians on board that are not familiar with Phish as even I myself can get too attached to the original versions.

What are you most stoked about for 2020 for the band?

I am very excited for the band moving into 2020. We have gotten to a point where not only have we curated a catalogue of Phish tunes that is very impressive, but we have also expanded our collective of musicians to incorporate players from around the world. By having such a large family, we have been able to really pick and choose which musicians will work best together in creating the best possible music for the fans.

2019 was such an amazing year in regards to how far the music has come that I can only imagine how much better it will get with another year of working on it. I also anticipate that we will be ready to release some new music this year which is always exciting!

Jazz is PHSH Tour Dates

Tuesday, February 4 – City Winery Boston – Boston, MA
Wednesday, February 5 – City Winery Philadelphia – Philadelphia, PA
Thursday, February 6 – Brooklyn Bowl – Brooklyn, NY
Friday February 7 – Bright Box Theater – Winchester, VA
Saturday February 8 – The Abbey Bar – Harrisburg, PA

For tickets to Jazz is PHSH on this tour, click here.

Bill Bodkin
Bill Bodkinhttps://thepopbreak.com
Bill Bodkin is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break, and most importantly a husband, and father. Ol' Graybeard writes way too much about wrestling, jam bands, Asbury Park music, HBO shows, and can often be seen under his season DJ alias, DJ Father Christmas. He is the co-host of the Socially Distanced Podcast (w/Al Mannarino) which drops weekly on Apple, Google, Anchor & Spotify. He is the co-host of the monthly podcasts -- Anchored in Asbury, TV Break and Bill vs. The MCU.

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