The Key to the Best Jams: Patterns and Themes

No, not this kind of Phish pattern

Seeing as it’s “The State of the Phish” week here at OPT, I thought it would be useful to discuss something that would help us put into perspective just where Phish’s current style of jamming is and what we should hope for this summer.

During the years Phish has been around, we’ve been able to witness their sound change and their improv style morph as each tour went by.  Certainly, Phish’s ambient bliss from 1998 was very different than the tightly-wound, explosive rock from 1992 that dominated nearly every jam of the time.  However, Phish have a few constants that stay in place, helping keep them the reigning heavyweight title holders of musical improvisation.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about how Trey used to “attack” his guitar–saying that it’s something that remained a Phish constant through 1.0 and parts of 2.0.  I went on to explain how this feature is lacking from 3.0 jams.

There is another element of Phish jamming that helps propel their jams to levels most bands cannot dream of. Many of the best and most memorable jams are built off of it, and although it isn’t as common in 3.0, it also isn’t completely gone.  It’s something Trey needs to recognize in order to keep the band playing as a unit, something that would give the rest of the band something steady to grab onto as they are about to launch into an extended bout with improvisation whether the jam is funk, rock, or ambiance-based. It’s something I call the ‘jam pattern’.

Jam patterns are comprised of a riff or chord progression that a member of the band initiates during a jam. And while any of the band members can start a jam pattern, it’s typically Trey.  Phish relied heavily on jam patterns in the early 90’s (1991-1993)–that’s what made a lot of the longer jams from the era have a ‘throbbing’ sound (think Tweezers from ‘91-’93); sometimes it sounded like they jammed with short attention spans because the music kept going in different directions based on different licks that would pop up (think 8/13/93 Gin).  Both of the sounds I just mentioned, along with jam patterns in general, can probably be attributed to their early ‘Hey Hole’ improvisational practice routines.  As they honed their group improvisational skills, sometimes these patterns would create an overall theme for the jam–when a jam creates its own theme, they’ve officially created a living, breathing monster (IT’S ALIVE!).

While there are abundant examples of these jam patterns from 1.0, and even a decent amount in 2.0, 3.0 jams seem to lack this.  Many of the jams now are Trey-led, and seem to have less focus on full-band improvisation.  Trey takes leads, but noodles aimlessly far more than he tries to find the right note for what his band mates are doing around him.  For instance, Stash used to often feature the band building tension around a lick that Trey would come up with–now, Trey often noodles around or does his own thing and expects the band to back him up.  If Trey paid more attention to his history, he’d realize that creating patterns is actually the best way to direct the rest of the band in the direction he wants to go.

Let’s look at some examples of jams that were premised around patterning from Phish’s history.

(Dave Vann)

Mike’s Song – 5/18/1992

Let’s start off with an earlier example.  I mentioned before that a lot of the earlier jams that featured patterns led to a throb-like sound, a punctuated sound.  During Mike’s Song, Mike appropriately started a pattern that Trey immediately picked up on with Page and Fishman following.  Notice how punctuated it sounds.  This set them up with a base to jam over going into the end.

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Stash – 6/13/1994
Trey used patterns to accomplish a number of improvisational tasks unique to Phish.  One of my favorite ways to use a pattern is to create tension before exploding.  Here, Trey created a tension-filled pattern on top of Fish’s usual Stash beat.  After Mike follows the same pattern, Trey starts branching out with different, tension-filled improvisation.  Trey had set the base of how he wanted the foundation of this tension/release jam to begin.  Tension/release jamming is something Stash is severly lacking in 3.0, creating a simple pattern for the band to wrap around is a great way to set up an explosive peak.

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David Bowie – 3/31/1993
Another song that is really hurting in 3.0 is David Bowie.  Bowie follows a very formulaic route nowadays.  Trey often noodels and then flops into the ending segment.  A pattern can help the band get on the same page for a raging entry to the end segment.  The pattern here sets Fish up on the same page as Trey and gives Trey a springboard to go into the rock that will eventually lead into the trilling that finishes the song.  Notice how Trey keeps the pattern in the back of his mind for the entire clip, each time morphing it a bit until it becomes a different pattern than when it originally started.  You know Trey’s head is in the game when his main pattern evolves into another.

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You Enjoy Myself – 12/31/1995
Some patterns are real simple, it can be a very basic lick.  A lot of YEMs will simmer down after Trey lands on stage off his trampoline.  YEMs are notorious for containing a jam based on a lick, or pattern, from Trey.  One of the most famous examples starts with a lick that should be burnt into every fan’s head.  This lick brings the jam from “where should we go?” to “HERE WE GO!”.  Once the rest of the band gets their Sea (& Sand) legs back, Trey can change what he does.  Listen to this pattern very closely; Trey uses nearly this exact same pattern in a lot of different jams.  Notice anything familiar about the Tweezer clip under it?

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Tweezer – 10/22/1995
Trey uses nearly the same pattern as the YEM above, only, this time, it takes the jam into a whole different direction!  This one morphs like a chameleon.

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Mike’s Song – 12/01/1995
While extended versions of Weekapaug Groove are usually better known for containing mesmerizing pattern-jamming, Mike’s Song (as we saw in the first example) isn’t immune to it.  In this epic version of the song, Trey, almost without thinking, lays a gorgeous pattern over Fishman’s intricate beat.  This pattern is what launches this version into Phishtory.  Trey’s guitar is far more interesting with a pattern we can all hold on to–something that makes the jam recognizable.

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Weekapaug Groove – 12/01/1995
Mike’s Song bled right into Weekapaug.  Trey reaches a sublime pattern that is used once the band already has solid footing.  However, once Trey starts this one up, Fish is able to dig in deeper–the jam goes into legendary territory quickly.

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Weekapaug Groove – 12/31/1995
Weekapaug Groove is a song that’s a breeding ground for patterns.  The poppy drumbeat provides Trey with a backbone for note-driven leads.  One of the best versions of the song of all time, argued for by Guy Forget in Tales of  Mental Tangle #3,  is laced with patterns.  The patterns in this NYE ‘Paug gives the song very a focused direction.  This particular pattern is reminiscent to the earlier “throbbing” sound–Trey uses this pattern to slow down the drums and bass–once Mike and Fish catch on, Trey hops on the wah and furiously strums funk on top of the new rhythm.  Notice how quickly Fish and Mike pick up on this–they were just on this night–listening to each other so well.  Patterns force other band members to listen.

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Sometimes a simple pattern can turn into a jam’s entire ‘theme’; when a pattern leads the entire band to a jam based around the pattern, with the pattern either frequently revisited or at the core of the jam, the jam has it’s own theme. Because a theme gives a jam its own unique sound, it makes the jam memorable to us–it makes it easy to recognize for years. Some of our favorite jams are themed jams.

Wolfman’s Brother – 7/24/1998
The last Summer Rage Sauce before 2011’s summer tour was Texas Heat ’98 (click for download).  The only reason I chose this show for that slot was because of the epic Wolfman’s jam.  The jam begins with the chord progression you’ll hear a few seconds into the clip below.  The entire jam is built around it.  This clip comes from the end of the song–by this point, the theme’s is rooted deep; you can tell by how Fish knows exactly what to do when Trey starts it up again.  The chord pattern is revisited a number of times throughout the jam–it switches from the hard rock of the pattern to funk, sounding as if the jam was pre-composed.  This is one of my favorite examples of a pattern leading to a theme.  Give ‘er a listen.

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Twist – 7/04/2000
Thanks to Phish releasing the soundboard of this last week, I remembered the fantastic, dark theme that was created out of an unusual pattern from Trey.  This clip starts with the pattern from Trey, Fish starts hitting his china cymbal–I cut a few minutes of the jam out and the clip returns to the end of the jam when the theme arises.  It goes between the theme/Fish crashing the china and Trey using a sound that is almost like a siren. Like the Wolfman’s clip above, it’s a pattern that is revisited throughout the theme it created.

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You Enjoy Myself – 11/07/1996
This is one of my favorite clips of the bunch.  Shortly after the trampolines section, Trey starts a funky and simple pattern, punctuated with two notes in between the strums.  Quickly, Mike adds his own pattern inside the holes of Trey’s pattern.  This example is unusual because Page hijacks Mike’s theme.  Trey keeps what he’s doing up while Mike yields to Page’s leads.  If you haven’t heard this show, download it stat.

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Now that we are in 3.0, there are still examples of pattern-jamming.  The few examples below provide us with something to hold on to–something that will give us hope for the progression of Phish’s jamming this summer.  The beautiful thing about pattern-jamming is that Trey can be playing any style of music, he can be playing as simple or complex as he wants to be–no matter what the pattern, it’s always good for a jam.

Sand – 6/07/2009
Trey started getting his creativity legs back during the first big jam of 3.0.  Here is a nice pattern at the end of the 20+ minute Sand from Camden.

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You Enjoy Myself – 12/04/2009
Mike started this one, Trey liked it so much that he hijacked it (like Page did to Mike in the YEM from 11/07/1996).  While the pattern dissolves when the jam moves to a different section, it helped them lock into each other’s playing before finishing one of the best YEMs of 3.0.

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Tweezer – 7/31/2009
This jam needs no introduction.  This is the first themed jam of 3.0–like the other examples of themed jams, notice how Trey’s pattern keeps getting revisited after complimenting musical lulls in the jam–it goes between the pattern and something else, just like the 7/24 Wolfman’s and the 7/04 Twist.

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Tweezer – 12/29/2009
This jam didn’t become a fan favorite by luck, but rather, by theme.  Here is another jam based around a theme, based around a pattern by Trey.

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Now that you’ve read this unbelieveably tedious description of one of my favorite aspects of Phish jamming and why they need to bring this back this summer, you’re going to start noticing patterns and themes all over your favorite jams.  If you take anything out of this article, remember that direction leads to patterns, patterns can lead to themes, themes force improvisational focus, and focused improvisation is good for us.

See you all in one week! 2011 is the year of the pattern!