Jam-type Phish songs, I’d argue, are exercises in how to improvise collectively. Each one deals with a unique rock-music parameter. It’s meta-rock, in a sense.
The “Reba” jam, for example, explores two parameters. The first is the melodic/harmonic nature of the Mixolydian mode, itself packed with meaning left over from late-’60s rock (and, later, grunge, and probably scores of other rock sub-genres). The second is the gradual dynamic trajectory from soft to loud. (One could call it “dynamic intensification.”) What they explore in “Reba,” then, is how to improvise collectively with those two parameters set in place.
The “David Bowie” jam has a similar dynamic trajectory (soft to loud) and melodic/harmonic scheme (this time minor/Dorian). There’s an additional parameter as well, one we’ll call rhythmic intensification. “Bowie” jams end in what’s usually called “double time,” where it feels as though the groove is cut in half.
A few additional examples: the “Split Open and Melt” jam has an added eighth-note “speed bump.” Much of the work to be done there is to figure out how to deal with it. Songs such as “AC/DC Bag” and “Foam” aren’t exactly jam-type songs. But they end with improvisation. It’s more of the individual solo-type (especially “Foam”) over a set, repeating chord progression. Still, they each have a problem to be worked out. “AC/DC Bag” intensifies both dynamically and rhythmically. “Foam”’s “problem” is a rising and falling chromatic line that ties the chords together. It’s extremely difficult to improvise over, a result of the unusual phrase lengths and harmonic successions spun out by the chromatic line.
Improvisational problems in other songs (“Divided Sky,” “Tweezer,” “Chalkdust Torture,” “Possum,” “Harry Hood,” “Slave to the Traffic Light,” “Runaway Jim,” and many others) range widely. They can be interpreted in many ways. But the effectiveness and simple elegance of each “problem” is what makes certain jam-type songs endure and others fall away. If a problem is particularly challenging (“Foam,” for example), it remains in the repertoire. It means there’s more to explore. Type II jams, I believe, occur when they decide to depart from the problem entirely.
I’m generalizing, of course. But I think the bones of an approach are here somewhere. I’m also not reaching into the multitude of solutions they’ve come up with over the years. That’s beyond my scope, and exponentially more interesting than this discussion.
Lately, I’ve become fascinated by the “Bathtub Gin” jam. It’s one of the few that’s based on a thematic problem. In other words, the final vocal theme, the one after the verses are completed, acts as melodic fodder for the jam, to be broken down, reorganized, re-harmonized and metrically shifted.
Are there other jam-type songs, either originals or cover compositions, that work that way? Are there others, perhaps newer songs, that work in other ways that are easily (or not-so-easily) classified along these lines? Are there other jam songs that have fallen away, perhaps because they lack interesting problems?
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- greatfuckingbird answered: Twenty Years Later isn’t straightfoward (sounds like 10/4 in my head) but I hope gets the treatment
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- nosimplehighhwayy answered: really good point. i guess thats just the way they get it done. iv always been phasinated by the 8th note speed bump in the split/melt solo
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