HT Interview: Jason Crosby – Way Out West

A Friend of Phil, a regular at Bob Weir’s TRI Studios and Weir Here performances, a guest with Kimock, a swingman extraordinaire in the ongoing God Street Wine reunion, a member of Assembly of Dust…Jason Crosby’s been absolutely everywhere lately. And on top of all that, he’s still found time to work on original music and also tackle a series of interpretations tied to Beck’s Song Reader project.

[Photo by Jeremy Gordon]

It seems like a lot. But if you’ve been aware of Crosby for a while – maybe from his stints with the Susan Tedeschi or Robert Randolph bands, maybe as a frequent sit-in guest in the New York area and at festivals, maybe from some other vantage on his adventurous body of work – you know this is how the man operates: his notoriety spreading, his presence ubiquitous, his talents for violin, keyboards and many other instruments in high demand.

In between appointments, Crosby was gracious enough to chat with Hidden Track for a few minutes and catch us up. We touched on pretty much all of his current projects, although it’s clear his recent involvement with the various priorities of Weir and Lesh has him most excited.

HIDDEN TRACK: Well first things first, you are based out West full time now, correct?

JASON CROSBY: Yes. I am in Marin County, specifically Mill Valley. It became official in February though I’ve been out here really since the beginning of the year when I came out to do some shows with Phil & Friends. I decided I wanted to stay a few weeks because I’d had such a great time with God Street Wine out here and wanted to see who else I would run into and meet.

I was considering relocating from New York anyway. And then I reconnected with Bob [Weir] and we had begun working on the Weir Here webcasts, so he was really the driving force to getting me out here. He had heard a bit about me maybe moving, and he said to me, there is a lot of stuff we could be doing if you move here. I could tell by the way he said it and the look in his eyes that he meant it.

HT: You’ve been doing so much with both Bob and Phil and have been turning up everywhere when it comes to their performances. Did you have a prior relationship with Bob and Phil and the Dead camp specifically?

JC: It really goes back just to August. I had met them casually before. Susan [Tedeschi] introduced me to Bob around 13 years ago at a show, and Jeff Sipe had introduced me to Phil during the time he was playing with Phil & Friends. But that was all quick and casual.

In August, I came out with God Street Wine, and Bob sat in with us, and we went over to Terrapin Crossroads after the webcast, and I was playing violin and Phil was there and was apparently digging what he was hearing. He got my information and reached out personally. I almost didn’t respond, because when the e-mail came through it said it was an e-mail from Phil Lesh and I thought it was an ad or a promotion for the New York Phil & Friends gigs or something. I swiped it into the archive in my iPhone inbox but then I looked at the preview on it, and it’s Phil. It’s a personal e-mail from Phil Lesh inviting me to come play with them at the Wellmont. So that’s kind of how the relationship started and has grown.

[Photo by Jeremy Gordon]

HT: You’ve obviously been exposed to Dead music throughout your career, but with all the work you’re doing with Bob and Phil now, you’re now immersed in it. Had you spent much time with the catalog before?

JC: Not this intensely. I did some touring with the Zen Tricksters back in 2000 when Rob [Barraco] got the gig with Phil initially. I took his spot for a bit and then Susan hired me shortly after that and I was out with her for four years. But during that time, also, the Zens were doing their own tunes and I was in a bunch of other projects, too. So yeah, the last two months is the most focused I’ve ever been on this music.

HT: Tell me more about reconnecting with Bob and how you’ve become so involved with TRI.

JC: Well, the Weir Here taping after that week with Phil in January, they had a guest planned who had to reschedule and they needed someone to fill in last minute. I brought Shana Morrison – who I’ve been staying with out here – and immediately we all hit it off. Bob was digging the six-string violin, I don’t think he’d really checked that out much yet. I’m just so impressed with what Weir Here has become, and I’ve been able to play violin and guitar and keys and bass, and with Bob…it’s like we’ve been old friends. I have a real great connection with him and it’s just grown really fast.

Bob was the reason I sat in with Furthur in Colorado. I was already taking my friend for his 40th birthday to the show. I told Bob I was flying out for it – this was before we started the Weir Here work we’re doing now – and after that, he was like, hey, by the way, you’re sitting in Sunday! [laughs] That was it. I was there and I sat in the audience for the first set, then went back and went over the setlist with them during setbreak. So I’ve been doing a lot with Bob and he did urge me to stick around, and now I’ve played Weir Here, I’ve played with RatDog and Furthur and I think I’m going to be playing a more significant role with all the stuff he has going on at TRI.

HT: I’ll come back to that in a minute, but I’m still curious about your move. We still think of you very much as a New York musician and you’ve been ubiquitous on that local scene for so long. Was it just time for a change?

JC: Yeah, I was born and raised there and will always consider it home. New York is great, but there’s nothing like Marin County. The weather is beautiful and I’m meeting so many new people and that’s been wonderful. I do miss New York and my family and friends, and hey, I’ll be back there a bunch. And you know I’m going to be bringing a lot of New York people to play out here.

HT: Overall, it sounds like you’re still as involved as you’ve always been in a range of different projects and collaborations. How do you decide what to prioritize? You’ve gone through periods where you commit full time to bands like Susan’s and Robert Randolph, but you’ve also had periods where you’ve been doing a lot of different things at once and focusing on your own music. I know right now, for example, you’re committed to Assembly of Dust, right?

JC: It is tough. I’ve been blessed with all of these amazing opportunities and I’m fortunate that I’ve worked with good people. I chat with Reid [Genauer] and talk about everything that’s going on, and those guys are all really psyched for me. I want to help Assembly of Dust as much as possible. They know I can’t make every show, but I’m there for them as often as I can be. I want to bring them out here.

But I am focusing in with Bob. TRI and all this is my new home and where I want to focus on my attention. I’m a scatterbrain so I’ll always be doing a million things and working on stuff like this Beck project.

HT: Tell me more about that. That’s the Beck Song Reader material you’ve been experimenting with?

JC: I’ve been on this for a bit now and I’ve been involving Joe Russo, Hagar Ben Ari, James Genus from Saturday Night Live, Rodney Holmes. I’m getting Dave Schools and a lot of other folks to contribute and by the time it’s done it’s going to be pretty big. But every day I’m kind of looking at my phone and trying to figure out what I need to be doing that day, and what recording sessions and what flights I have to book and keeping it all straight.

HT: You need an assistant.

JC: I do! An assistant and a manager and whatever else.

HT: How did you gravitate to the Beck stuff?

JC: Well, there’s no audio reference for any of these songs. It’s an interesting project because it’s just 20 pieces of sheet music with no tempo markers and just basic melodies and chord changes. He set up a web site with the name of the album and the idea is that anyone can post their own versions of these songs using SoundCloud and different services.

I’m such a big fan of Beck’s music. I love it so much. I want to make the definitive versions of these and that idea has really taken on a life of its own. We’ve been playing some of these live, I did one on Weir Here and we played one with Phil & Friends. Phil and Bob asked about it. They’re all like, ‘What’s this about? Oh, cool, let’s do one!”

HT: It sounds like a really rich project and that we’ll be hearing more about it. In the meantime, as you expand your role with TRI and Weir Here, what will you be doing exactly?

JC: Signs are pointing to me doing some musical direction for the show, whether that’s help guests learn harmonies or Dead tunes, or give folks a sense of what playing in the studio is like. It’s a unique experience at TRI. You don’t get monitors or in-ears and you’re inside this room, and playing in that room, and it can be a little intimidating the first time. It’s a way I can help, though.

Leslie Mendelson came out, for example. She and I go back to, I think, 1998 from Long Island, but she was going to be out here separate from me, and we were able to meet a few days early and got some tunes and harmonies down. Bob really loves that, you know? Those three-part harmonies. It’s not always easy to do that. So yeah, I think my role will be helping out these artists as well as keeping involved in the show and playing a bunch of instruments and being used on recording projects. They’ve made me feel part of the family.

HT: So a lot of this discussion just sort of developed as you got to know Bob?

JC: Yeah, and it really happened all organically. There wasn’t any agenda, it was, let’s continue to do it and see how far we can take it and what we can do. I think that what Bob and Phil are doing with TRI, Terrapin and Sweetwater are beautiful things. They made their mark musically, and they continue to make it with Furthur, but this is a home base from which they can grow something else. Bob has the ultimate playpen here. Phil has Terrapin where he can watch his kids play and grow musically. It’s amazing.

HT: Switching gears, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the God Street Wine reunion and your participation. Are you having as much fun as it looks like?

JC: Oh yes. Any time I get a chance to play with them is a good one. I was a huge fan a long time ago; I saw them in like 1990 at Wetlands when I was 16, and then of course was part of what they were doing. I do stay close with Lo and the guys, and it’s special for everybody because they just don’t do it that much anymore, so those shows at Gramercy, or Sweetwater or TRI are important. Every moment and every note of those is special and the ends of those stands are bittersweet because we’re all like, why don’t we go out for another month because it sounds so good!

God Street Wine do have notoriety, but they deserve more. They were right up there with Blues Traveler and Spin Doctors and that generation of bands, and it’s great that they can still play.

[Photo by Jeremy Gordon]

HT: Is it your feeling that God Street Wine might become more regular again than just the sporadic shows we’re seeing now?

JC: The desire is 100 percent there. But it’s tough when you’ve got members spread out all over the world. Lo is in New Orleans, Aaron’s in New York, Tomo’s in Germany, I’m out here now, it just makes it really tough to do it often. But I think it’s always on the horizon, especially as kind of an annual or slightly more than annual thing. Phil loved it, for example, maybe he’ll be an impetus to get us back together more! He’s a master at pulling people into the vortex.

HT: Was Phil a God Street Wine fan?

JC: He’s a new fan, and definitely was that night in August. Apparently he was talking about it for days after. But that’s the connections Phil makes. He didn’t know I had played with Jimmy Herring until we’d gotten to know each other, and what other connections we had, and I don’t think he even knew I played anything else besides violin.

HT: That’s cool to hear. You are in a situation now where you get to spend candid moments with Phil and Bob and see what kind of connections they make and what motivates them. What’s Bob, like, for example, in the off-camera moments when Weir Here’s coming together?

JC: Man, he’ s just a fun-loving dude, just like many of the musicians I know. He gets his joy from playing music and he just loves doing that show so much. He told me recently that he doesn’t think he’s had this much fun since the Acid Tests, how the show comes together and how he puts his suit jacket on for the interviews and everything. He’s genuinely having a blast. Sometimes I have to check myself when I’m with him and I realize who my buddy is. He’ll ask me to do something like work out parts for Victim or the Crime and then I stop myself and it’s like, wow, I’m standing here checking a Grateful Dead song. And then there’s Bob again and he’s handing me something else and saying, I was listening to a lot of Bela Bartok and I think this might be good with violin.

HT: So you’ll admit you do once in a while get caught up in that aspect. That you’re collaborating with the legends of the Grateful Dead, that gets in your head?

JC: No question. One time I was playing B3 on Help/Slip/Franklin’s and I’m like, holy shit, what is going on right now. Honestly they’re so welcoming that you forget it’s them who you’re hanging with. I couldn’t say anything negative about the experience. And then it’s the stories they tell, and they’ll say things like, oh, Jerry would have loved that. I just feel so blessed to be doing this.

HT: Before I let you go, is there anything else you’re working on that we should highlight?

JC: The Beck project is really at the forefront, and my association with TRI and all I have going on in Grateful Dead land. But with the Beck project we will be putting out multiple volumes of music and making a band around that I think.

And then, there are a number of things I’d love to highlight but they’re just not confirmed yet. There is incredible stuff happening and about to happen, so keep an eye out moving forward.

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6 Responses

  1. Very insightful chat. Saw Jason a bunch of times back @ the Wetlands. Super nice guy. So glad things are really working out for him.

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