From the stately to the uproarious, JazzIsPhsh put on such a show at Higher Ground on April 7th, it’s difficult to know where to begin, but to make note of the very start is appropriate, if only because the octet commenced with the same tune(s) with which they (essentially) resolved their excellent record He Never Spoke A Word, release earlier this year.
Insinuating itself into Bobby Blue Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight” in ever-so-jaunty jaunty New Orleans fashion by weaving in and out of “Alumni Blues”>”Letter to Jimmy Page”>”Alumni Blues,” the group piqued the curiosity of the audience and simultaneously paid homage to the Grateful Dead and JIP’s own like-minded predecessors, Jazz Is Dead (begun with Mahavishnu drummer Billy Cobham and eventually including Jimmy Herring and Alfonso Johnson among its number).
The muted recognition from the attendees at this point belied the growing acclamation of the band’s performance, especially as JazzIsPhsh hit its stride with “Tweezer” and just a bit later “Bathtub Gin.” It was during this interval the ensemble coalesced, revealing how integral is the horn section to the function of the group in their all-instrumental interpretations of the music of Phish: the Giant Country Horns (among whose members was this same Dave “The Truth” Grippo on stage with JIP!) didn’t dominate the proceedings so fully when accompanying that quartet.
Reaffirming that the novelty of this band’s concept, like their deceptively glib name, is merely superficial, the aforementioned Vermont-based alto saxophonist, along with his counterparts, trombonists Michael Ray and Scott Flynn plus sax and tenor sax/flute man Jay Rodriguez, were wholly in their element throughout the nearly three-hour show. Bristling with energy, these four were free to soar in tandem or spiral off in solos, while the core quartet acted in turn as launchpad and anchor. Josh Thomas might consider using piano more often than his electric keyboard, to accentuate the earthy element of the tunes and add spacious atmosphere, but the poly-rhythmic thrust of Adam Chase’s drumming compensated (and hearkened to the great drummers of jazz-fusion icons Weather Report).
Long before they concluded the first of two sets (which continued after a short break with “Julius”), initially teasing a close with almost imperceptibly increased, collective velocity, JazzIsPhsh made such tunes as “First Tube” sound like they were originally written for horns by accentuating melodic themes in a way Phish only suggest on their own. And by the time the JIP live debut of “Twist” appeared, the less-than-sold out crowd (slightly larger than the recent Holly Bowling show in the smaller room at this venue) made up in knowing response what they lacked in numbers.
It’s not necessary to be a devout Phish fan to truly enjoy JazzIsPhsh. In fact, it may be a detriment to fully appreciating the ingenuity of the arrangements and performances like this one. Acknowledging “Moma Dance,” for instance, may somewhat cloud its savvy placement near the end of set two: delving into the funk of Phish via the aforementioned tune, extending into a more brisk “Golgi Apparatus,” was one of the few (over-) obvious gestures JIP employed this early spring Friday night.
But it came at a time the audience was thinning out and the most challenging action of the night had already occurred, including an eye and ear-opening bass solo by Felix Pastorius that reminded of his late father Jaco’s start (“Donna Lee”) for his eponymous solo album. As the dancers occupying the floor observed musicians less interested in outplaying each other than serving the songs at their source of inspiration–with each successive solo, demonstrating just how deeply and actively they relished doing so–it made sense for everyone to relax into a collective groove at this point.
Still, the element of spontaneity on-stage and off wasn’t reduced all that much, as guitarist Matthew Chase (whose pinpoint precision solos were few and far between throughout the evening) offered quick guidance on the changes. If, after intros of the band, JazzIsPhsh telegraphed their final move by choosing “Tweezer (Reprise)” as their final number, when the entire instrumental lineup coalesced, in less than five minutes, to rise to a level of genuine majesty the likes of which they’d touched numerous times prior in this performance, it was clear how fully and completely this group does justice to this music.