Starting from about age fifteen(ish), until a few years ago, I almost exclusively listened to jam bands, and jam adjacent bands. Now I make no secret about my obsession with Phish and The Dead, and I still love the handful of late 90's jam bands that cut my musical teeth, but I found myself getting a bit bored with the newest guard of jam blands that have sprung up in the latter half of the 2010's. Since reconciling that I might not be a "jam band guy" anymore, my musical world has opened tenfold. Don't get me wrong, I still listen to Phish (and the Grateful Dead) daily, and still go out of my way to see them as many times as possible, but I have found more, and different music than I ever could have following the festival caravan throughout the midwest and beyond. But the question remains for the jam fan disenfranchised with the jam scene....what now?
The answer to this is invariably jazz. The jam scene owes its life to jazz; they share the same DNA. Both the Heads and the Jazzbos share the same spirit of improvisation and tireless live playing. Both camps pride themselves on their virtuosity and creativity; and understanding the depths of their respective music takes and keen and patient ear.
In this multipart series (I really don't know how many pieces), I am going to spotlight a selection of albums and artists that can help the jam fan ease their way into the overwhelmingly vast jazz world.
For this first piece, we will look at a handful of artists who are firmly rooted in the jam band scene, but are fundamentally jazz based. Since the term "Jam Band" is a bit arbitrary, and more indicative of the audience rather than the performer, there is a fair amount of aural overlap.
Medeski Martin and Wood: One of my personal favourite bands, and jam bands stalwarts, MMW are a Brooklyn bred avant-jazz trio. Formed in the early nineties, they assumed the jam moniker after performing with Phish in 1995. MMW's spirit of free form creativity and tactful blending of multiple genres of music are adored by the most rigid fans of both styles of music. I can't imagine where to begin with these guys, so here is a quickie playlist...I highly recommend diving deep with this incredible band.
John Scofield, Uberjam: A long term MMW collaborator, Dayton Ohio! native "Sco" is a modern guitar powerhouse. Few people have Scofield's prolific resume, composing and collaborating with the likes of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and The Weather Report. He is loved for his funk tinged jazz, and knack for improvisation. Scofield can fill a musical ocean with his body of jazz fusion work, but Uberjam, his record comprised of a jam band supergroup (featuring the likes of Karl Denson, Adam Deitch, and John Medeski) has the most intrinsically jam friendly waters.
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Live Art: I haven't listened to these guys in ages, but they are a buffet of all the jam band sub-genres. Led by a banjoist Bela Fleck, the Flecktones incorporate world, bluegrass, and a pinch of electronic into their jam stew. The jazz influence may not be as overtly noticeable as some other bands, but listen closely and it absolutely rises to the top. Pay special attention to Victor Wooten's incredibly accomplished bass work throughout the record.
Soulive, Rubber Soulive: Formed in upstate New York around the turn of the millennium, Soulive made hay tearing up the NYC club circuit before moving on to larger jam festivals. Jazz fans perk their ears at this power trio's extraordinary technical ability, and the astute fans of the jam-funk scene will quickly pick up on the familiar guitar tones of Eric Krasno, who now plays in Lettuce. They have several live and studio albums available on the streaming services, but listeners will certainly enjoy their gleefully fun take on The Beatles classics with Rubber Soulive.
Benevento Russo Duo: Prior to supercharging Grateful Dead songs with JRAD, childhood friends Marco Benevento and Joe Russo took the avant jazz paradigm to new levels with their duo (aptly named Benevento Russo Duo or The Duo). Their acid jazz backbone is strengthened by layers of effects, creating a lush cabaret of sounds. It really is remarkable when you realize that there are only four hands creating these deep space grooves. While these once young jazz aficionados have since moved on to bigger and better, The Benevento Russo duo will always be my favourite project of theirs (Note: It is also worth checking out their respective solo work, chock full of jam friendly jazz).
Trey Anastasio, The Horseshoe Curve: And Finally, what is any jam friendly list without Trey Anastasio? After a couple of clunker solo attempts (Shine and Bar 17), Trey gets the classic Trey Anastasio Band (TAB) back together from their 2002-2004 tours (Note: Live recordings from this period are must hear Anastasio; he fucking rips) to record the instrumental The Horseshoe Curve. For this record, Trey lays off the Doc and lets the other nine members of his band take the lead. While definitely familiar territory for TAB, The Horseshoe Curve explores less guitar-based jamming, although some tunes do lend way to some improv, and more big-band and Afrobeat style jazz. A very fun listen!