Trey Anastasio is well known as the guitarist and principal songwriter for Phish, one of the most successful jambands of the generation. With Anastasio at the helm, Phish created a diverse sound that encompassed numerous styles of American music including rock, jazz, funk and bluegrass. Trey’s songs were often mind-bendingly complex while offering significant opportunities for group improvisation. Phish built their reputation by playing these extremely intricate songs and demonstrating that they could improvise as well as any jazz band.
After Phish played their last show on Oct. 7, 2000, they announced that they were going on “hiatus” with no plans for the future. While the other three members of Phish have used much of this time to get out of the spotlight, Trey has been working non-stop. After creating orchestral versions of several Phish songs for the Vermont Youth Orchestra, Anastasio spent much of 2001 playing with Oysterhead, a power trio comprised of Trey, Les Claypool and Stewart Copeland.
Additionally, he has toured extensively with his own band, the aptly named Trey Anastasio Band. Anastasio’s first studio release after Phish disbanded was Oysterhead’s excellent debut album, which came out last October. Anastasio’s latest studio effort, Trey Anastasio, featuring the Trey Anastasio Band, meets with similarly high levels of commercial success.
On Trey Anastasio, Anastasio exercises the most creative control over any studio album he has appeared in thus far. With Phish’s studio albums, there were often significant contributions from the other members of the band. While this democratic process sometimes led to exciting results, it more often resulted in albums that felt disjointed and lacking in focus, such as the mediocre The Story of the Ghost. However, on his solo album, Anastasio maintains great control over the execution of his compositions and thus creates his strongest and most consistent studio album to date.
For this album, Anastasio assembled a massive group of thirty musicians. While most of the tracks feature Anastasio’s usual eight-piece backing band, most of them also utilize back-up singers, percussion or classical musicians. This decision is interesting because it takes a big band approach to the groove-rock sound that most jambands can create with only three to five musicians.
Nevertheless, Anastasio’s efforts work remarkably well. His expert placement of these extra musicians builds an incredibly rich and full sound on every track. For example, on the album’s first song “Alive Again,” Anastasio creates a dense, Latin sound that give the song a Carlos Santana feel to it. In addition to a superb horn section, Anastasio uses at least four percussionists on this track, who use such instruments as a traditional drum kit, timpani and marimba to create an extremely complex beat that remains very accessible with its solemn yet funky groove. Under Anastasio’s leadership, these extra musicians add much to the music.
There are also several tracks on the album that are not based around this hard, groove-rock sound, including several slow songs. Some of these songs are more successful than others. The ballad “Drifting” is better than “Flock of Words” because it doesn’t sound like the musicians are holding back. On “Flock of Words,” there is an overwhelming sense of restraint that detracts from the song, since the band is clearly capable of much more. On “Drifting,” Anastasio creates a song that is slow, laid-back and reflective, yet also very fluid and convincing in its uniquely contemplative mood.
“Last Tube,” the longest track on the album at over eleven minutes, begins with drummer Russ Lawton and bassist Tony Markellis laying down an incredibly funky beat. As Lawton and Markellis maintain this ominous and steady groove, several other musicians come in, teasing short bits of the song’s upcoming refrain. In addition to Anastasio’s funky guitar slices and delay loops, one can hear several horn players, most notably Nicholas Payton, a jazz trumpeter who guests on this song, interjecting funky riffs on his wah-wah trumpet. After building up for nearly four minutes, the song explodes as Trey plays the song’s uplifting and melodious refrain. This approach works so well because this joyous melody contrasts so sharply with the dark funk that preceded it. The song continues into vast improvisation and exploratory jamming which builds up for six more minutes, until Anastasio leads the band back to the song’s upbeat refrain. “Last Tube” truly demonstrates his ability as both a musician and band leader through his spirited playing and superb band direction.
Trey Anastasio delivers a studio album that is extremely satisfying. While most Phish studio albums did a poor job of conveying the sheer intensity and power of their live performances, Anastasio’s first major solo release does an excellent job. The vast majority of the songs are over four minutes long, and thus allow significant room for the improvisational jamming that Anastasio is known for. In addition, most of these jams are compelling, and they accurately convey the ferocious intensity of their best live renditions.
Thus, on this album, Anastasio pursues a sound that is very similar to Phish, but also decidedly different from his former band. The massive assemblage of musicians on this album creates a breed of jam-rock that is highly influenced by both mainstream, big band jazz and the funky, big band world music of Fela Kuti. With this album, Anastasio creates a sound that is very similar to the music he has been doing previously with Phish, but which is also highly original and interesting in its own right.