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I found this great article in the New York Times online last night.  It chronicles and attempts to explain The Grateful Dead and the loyal/obsessive following that the band carries to this day.  The article stood out to me because the subculture of “Dead Heads” so closely resembles the world of Phish that I was heavily involved in during the late 90’s.

I don’t really listen to Jam Band music anymore, but the interesting thing to me now about this article, and the Jam Band scene as a whole, is the live concert taping and analysis.  Every show these guys played was different (both for The Dead and for Phish), and so the fans sought to capture the nuances of each one.  This just doesn’t happen with other pop/rock artists.  Perhaps Radiohead will put out a live album every now and then, but nobody tapes and circulates each individual night of a given tour.

As I was thinking about this culture of immense dissection/criticism and why it doesn’t exist in the live shows of  pop/rock artists beyond just a handful of Jam Bands, I realized that it’s probably because most touring acts don’t play MUSIC as much as they put on a SHOW.  I don’t mean this negatively, I’m just pointing out that an emphasis on lighting, choreography, and other special effects make for a spectacle that has amazing power and attraction – a multi-sense experience that music alone can’t quite reach.  But, this experience also ends up requiring itself to be operated and performed in a very specific and precise manner, and therefore needs to be exactly the same tonight in Minneapolis, and tomorrow in Chicago, and next week in Orlando.  Well, then of course acquiring tapes of each individual concert, if they are all exactly the same, ends up being pointless.

Don’t worry – I’m getting to a point, and it’s this: I’m realizing more and more each year that I’ve always been (and probably always will be) a guy who just likes MUSIC.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good show.  I love U2 and Peter Gabriel, and I enjoy the incredible marriage of great music and great special effects at those artist’s shows.  It’s just that I will probably always prefer a guy like Keith Jarrett, because Keith is pouring himself into the music only.  There’s no frills or distractions in his performances, regardless of the pleasant experience that those extra-curricular elements might bring to an audience member.  Keith is speaking the language of music alone, and in so doing he’s reaching a level of eloquence and depth that I think is unparalleled in a “show.”  A great show has depth, but not as much on the MUSIC side of things, which, as I said, is where my personal interest lies.   While I certainly don’t want to put Keith and The Dead in the same category, I will say that this “music-only” emphasis is something that the they share.

Again, I love a good show as much as the next guy, so don’t misunderstand me there.  I’m just going on record saying that, at the end of the day, I think I’m a “music only” guy, which is probably why the Phish tape-trading scene was so attractive to me when I was younger.  Ten years ago, after I finished my freshman year of college, I spent the summer painting the exteriors of houses and apartment buildings.  And over those 3 months, I circulated twice through my 400-tape collection of bootleg Phish concerts.  I would spend ten hours on the ladders with my brush and my walkman, just listening to tapes the whole time, and I really really enjoyed noticing the nuances and fingerprints of each show.  I didn’t need the lights… or pyrotechnics… or whatever.  Just the music was enough to make those ten hours go by before I knew it.

Anyway, to bring it back around, I think the above-linked article about the Dead Heads and their detail-oriented analysis of live shows reveals a cool thing about The Grateful Dead – that they were a “music-only” band.  Regardless of whether you like their music, you can’t deny that those dudes played MUSIC… nothing more and nothing less.

Even though I have “moved on” in my listening, and now enjoy comparing and contrasting Steve Jordan in the 80’s vs today, and the Radiohead B-sides compared to their official releases, instead of disecting the differences between Phish shows – it is still the same deep well of MUSIC that draws me.  I’m going to go listen to Keith Jarrett now.

Mike Portnoy… maybe compensating for something? #yeahIsaidit

When I was young I had a cymbal set-up with hats, 2 rides, 4 crashes, 2 splashes, a bell dome, and 2 chinas. I thought I was the bomb… and I had a ton of fun experimenting with all those different sounds. Now, however, I run hats with a ride and 1 crash… sometimes 2 if the situation requires it. I think the main difference is that over the last ten years I’ve been able to refine my understanding of the role of a cymbal.

The biggest issue is knowing when to NOT play. For instance, listen to “One Headlight” from the Wallflower’s first record Bringing Down The Horse. Notice anything? Matt Chamberlain doesn’t hit ANY crashes… or ride for that matter. It’s hats and hats only for the entire track… and the cool thing is that most people (even drummers) don’t notice the lack of crashes until someone else points it out. Just listening to that tune is a great lesson on knowing the role of a crash.

I started exploring this idea in high school when I would intentionally take parts of my kit away and try to play with the limited set-up that remained. Maybe just kick/snare/hats… or just kick/toms/ride… or whatever. I enjoyed the creativity that came from forcing myself to play a stripped-down kit… and I began to discover how many different sounds could be pulled from only one cymbal or drum.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m not trying to say that having a lot of cymbals is automatically bad. The only real problem with it is temptation. Honestly, how often does a bell dome REALLY fit in a song? Answer: not very often… maybe once in your band’s entire show. But for most drummers, simply having the bell dome set up on the kit makes you want to hit it. You’re trucking along on the tune and you notice the bell dome sitting there and you think “oh… I haven’t hit that in a while…” and then you force the issue and play it in a spot where it doesn’t belong.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with a bell dome. You just have to know when to show some restraint and NOT hit it. An example of this would be Jack DeJohnette in the Keith Jarrett Trio. His set-up is almost unforgivably excessive for a jazz context, but you would never know it from just listening. He’s not hitting anything that doesn’t need to be hit, and the discipline and musicality he shows in having all those cymbals and not hitting them is incredible. He just uses what he needs and it rules.

SUMMARY: Put as many cymbals in your set-up as you want… but prioritize knowing when to NOT play them.

This week I went on a much-needed Jazz binge. For the end of high school and the first few years of college I listened to Jazz almost exclusively, but much of my listening over the past 4 years or so has been focused on rock/pop. I got a bunch of new Jazz records lately, so it was time for the calculated commercial music to have it’s turn on the shelf. Here’s what I’ve had in the cue this last week…

1) John Coltrane – Ballads …A more reserved side of the famous Coltrane Quartet. Elvin Jones on drums. His feel is so elastic and interpretive. He puts so much of HIS stamp on everything he plays. You can transcribe and learn Elvin’s patterns, but nobody can play them quite like he did.

2) Keith Jarrett – Live at the Blue Note …This is a box-set of the Keith trio, with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. All the tunes are standards, but with the signature Keith Jarrett Trio expansions. This group improvises so well together – often the tune itself finishes at around the 6-minute mark but the outro-vamp builds and morphs into it’s own thing for another 6 minutes.

3) Lee Konitz – Alone Together …One of my absolute favorite records. Interestingly enough, there’s no drummer. It’s Konitz on saxophones, Brad Mehldau on piano, and Charlie Haden on bass. They play so musically together, such that you really don’t even miss the drummer.

4) Jackie McLean – It’s Time! …A great post-bop album with Roy Haynes on drums. I love Roy Haynes’ energy on this recording.

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