LIVE: JAZZ is PHSH w/ Felix Pastorius’ Hipster Assassins @ The Egg, Albany 08/25/19
As I walked into The Egg for the first time in several months, I thought I was probably the wrong person to review JAZZ is PHSH: I was not one of the Deadheads who switched over to Phish after Jerry passed, and apart from my already-established love of rocking jazzers like Charlie Hunter and John Scofield, I’d stayed away from the jam-band scene. (And no, I never took to Dead & Co., either. Once you see Jerry Garcia sing “China Cat Sunflower” on the beach at Ventura, John Mayer just doesn’t cut the mustard.)
However, after listening to drummer Adam Chase describe the genesis of this passion project, it turns out I was the perfect choice for this gig because I was basically coming in fresh. When Adam and his brother – guitarist Matthew Chase – gathered some natural born killers to do the 2017 disc He Never Spoke A Word, Adam told all the musicians to leave behind any preconceived notions about what Phish had done in the past, either on stage or in the studio: “‘You just be you,’” he told them. Chase must have given the same message to the players at The Egg because none of them were on the disc, but all of them made Chase’s soaring arrangements seem like great ideas they all had together.
Things started out easy, with Snarky Puppy guitarist Bob Lanzetti and Dynamo tenor saxman Kevin Gatzke playing a bluesy duet on “Lawn Boy” that became a trio when Naught Professor trumpeter John Culbreath joined in. Felix Pastorius played six-string bass while sitting on a tall stool near the back of the stage, his face almost hidden by a flat-billed baseball cap as he maintained the foundation of this sweet piece that had elements of “God Bless the Child.” At the end of the tune, Chase and keyboardist Jake Silverman walked onstage, and after they were seated, Adam counted the band in on “Stash”, and we were off and running.
The bright, tight, jumping piece was a template for most of what was to follow, as the sextet came at us with a tantalizing mix of rock and funk that had some hardcore Phish heads dancing in the top row of the Hart Theatre. Silverman stayed with the grand piano for the first few tunes, but eventually, he was serving up electric sounds that gave each piece he touched just a little more fuzz and a little more fun. One of my ongoing monologues has been how fun seems to have been processed out of most mainstream jazz, so experiencing a unit where fun was one of the primary motivators had me grinning like a complete fool.
Adam prefaced “Gumbo” by describing how he and Pastorius had worked together on a Chase Brothers tribute to Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, “so we incorporated that into this, putting Head Hunters and Phish together!” The result was the same burning, funked-up jazz sound Hancock hit us with all those years ago to take fusion one step beyond, but in the hands of JiP, it didn’t sound the least bit dated. Snarky Puppy is another band that’s brought that Head Hunters vibe into the 21st century, so Lanzetti’s snarling guitar was a perfect fit for this music, particularly on “Dinner and A Movie”, which a deadpan Chase called “a romantic song.”
Culbreath and Gatzke may come from different bands, but on this night, they were a seamless team, creating a lively harmonic that illuminated the festivities even further when they weren’t blowing up on their own solos. The overall effect was akin to the steely support and expert instrumentation Jim Price & Bobby Keys used to bring to the Rolling Stones’ live shows. They were both key on the stretched-out jam “The Moma Dance” and the stunning regular-set closer “Carini”; Chase dedicated the latter tune to the late multi-instrumentalist Kofi Burbridge, who appeared on He Never Spoke A Word and helped Chase arrange the piece.
While Pastorius had no problem showing off his tasty chops with JAZZ is PHSH, he was a lot more introverted with his own band Hipster Assassins, who opened the show. When you have two six-string bass players in the same band and the loudest one ISN’T Felix Pastorius, you’ve got issues. It didn’t help that John Bendy’s too-loud guitar amp blew out Felix and drummer Kenny Grohowski, but Felix was still muted even when he was given space to solo. That was probably a good thing in retrospect, as you got the sense that if he’d let himself loose the way he did with JiP, Pastorius probably would have blown his bandmates into the Hudson.
This is Hipster Assassins’ first tour after basically gigging in Brooklyn and Manhattan for the last nine years, and they only had 45 minutes to work with, which may explain why it seemed like they were throwing everything but the kitchen sink at us. Unfortunately, the borderline-schizophrenic arrangements seemed like devices, and their overuse of special effects was no replacement for a dearth of fresh ideas. Happily, there were plenty of ideas – and plenty of fun – when the headliners started rocking the house. As many of the pieces in JAZZ is PHSH’s set didn’t appear on their one and only disc, we can only hope there is more to come from Adam Chase’s brainchild. The only remaining question is what monsters will Chase recruit next time to bewitch and beguile us.