The Chase Brothers, Adam (Drums) and Matthew (Guitar), have been making waves as of late with two exemplary tributes, Jazz Is Phish, and The James Brown Dance Party. Both bands take the songs of their inspiring namesakes to new and exploratory levels. In each ensemble, with the Chase’s at the helm, the target is to traverse the tunes of these legendary acts, while creating an environment conducive to dance, elation, transcendence, and an all around good time. With Jazz Is Phish (JIP), the Phish catalog is used as a starting point to roundly reinvent the songs. In The James Brown Dance Party (JBDP), Adam and Matthew assemble a different All Star cast of musicians for each respective show, and through varied collaborations, the classic James Brown repertoire shines uniquely each and every time. In the end, while the road travelled reveals divergent scenery, both bands leave you with a similar lightness in your step that we all seek through live music.
While I could ramble on in perpetuity touting the merits of each of these acts, luckily for us the Brothers Chase were kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions. Their musical upbringing, the origins of each project, legacy, choosing collaborators, and more is discussed. So with an aim towards better understanding the motivations and aspirations of these two talented brothers in the prime of their musical lives, enjoy the following Q & A. When you’re done, get your tickets to JIP and JBDP to see these siblings of song tear it up at a venue near you in the upcoming weeks! (Find tour dates and ticketing links listed after the Q&A.)
1. For someone completely unfamiliar with Jazz Is Phish or The James Brown Dance Party, what would be your pitch to pique their interest?
Matthew Chase (MC): Both projects take a fresh approach to performing music. They combine players from different generations and backgrounds (music and life) to come together and create a unique take on familiar music. The pitch would be slightly different for each band since one is a rotating cast and the other is a set lineup that features special guests.
For the JBDP it’s an easy sell since everyone loves James Brown and his amazing music. Add an All Star cast including players from the original James Brown Band and a high-energy dance party set and there you have it!
Jazz is Phish is a very intriguing idea since the framework was already laid down by the Jazz Is Dead Project. Although Phish and the Grateful Dead have very different audiences, there is some crossover and most Phish Fans have heard about Jazz is Dead. So when they hear the name “Jazz is Phish” they already have some preconceived notions as to what it’s about. We honor that idea by transforming Phish tunes into instrumental arrangements turning the vocal melodies into “jazz heads” regardless of the style being traditional jazz or not.
I would ask someone if they heard of Jazz is Dead first then explain. Jazz is Dead took the Grateful Dead’s large 6-7 piece band and interpreted the music as a 4 piece with guitar, bass drums, and keys. We are interpreting Phish, a 4-piece band, with a seven to 9-piece band including a full horn section. This creates an entirely different dynamic and opens up the music to several different styles and feels. The idea of both groups, Jazz is Dead and Jazz is Phish, is not to play the music in a traditional Jazz setting but to open up the endless possibilities of an all instrumental version of these popular tunes regardless of style or genre. You have to see it for yourself because you never know what you will get!
Adam Chase (AC): When I am talking to my friends about The James Brown Dance Party and about Jazz Is Phish, I get excited about how I feel lucky to have two incredibly fun projects.
With the James Brown Dance Party, we are bringing together the old school players that toured with James Brown with a variety of All Star players from the funk, jazz and jam worlds. All of the musicians share a love for the music and since we are bringing some of the best players available, including musicians from Sly and the Family Stone, Snarky Puppy, Trey Anastasio Band, Kool And The Gang, The Saturday Night Live Band, Trombone Shorty, Galactic, Lettuce and more, we are able to create epic performances that move everyone in the room. Since every time we do a run we have a different lineup of players, each performance is unique, albeit steeped in the deep funk of James Brown.
With Jazz Is Phish, I love it because you don’t have to like Phish to love the project. Of course, if you do love Phish it’s that much better. The music is re-imagined into a large ensemble setting, where horns replace vocals and the nuances change to reflect a sound that respects the genius of the compositions as written, while introducing flavors reminiscent to the fusion of Herbie Hancock and the epic sound of Charles Mingus. The show is high energy, explorative, horn heavy and super funky!
2. Where did the idea to put on tributes such as these originate?
AC: As a musician that attended music school, I was frequently transcribing solos and studying recordings of other players. Frequently in various jazz combos, we would put on shows that were full records or well known pieces composed by the musicians we were studying at the time. I always enjoyed the process. When I was in a full time touring original band, I would frequently put tribute shows together in my hometown when I wasn’t on the road. It was a fun and allowed me to explore different music and learn different things to apply to my original music.
One of the tributes I put together then, was the James Brown Dance Party. At that time it was built around the players in my original band, which included my brother Matthew, Elise Testone, Ben Markowitz, Aaron Levy and myself. After the original band broke up and the core was no longer together, I thought it would be fun to reintroduce the project as something that a lot of musicians could share in, as so many musicians love the music. Inspired by Everyone Orchestra, I decided to re-launch the project with a revolving cast of players. We sold out our first show and haven’t looked back since.
Jazz Is Phish was an idea I had been considering for a number of years before I ever got it together. As someone that grew up on the music and was so inspired by the band, I had a passion for the material. I often found myself turning on friends to their music. I had a lot of musician friends that were from very different backgrounds and Phish really wasn’t their style. Regardless, I made them listen to some of my favorite compositions; Fluffhead, Reba, Guelah Papyrus…while not every musician loved the style or lyrical content, every one of them appreciated the compositions, musicianship and challenge the music presented. It occurred to me that if I could create a project that presented Phish’s music in a re-imagined, instrumental setting, there would be an entirely new audience interested in the material while also appealing to the legion of enthusiastic Phish fans (like myself) that were already out there. It all came together after a performance I did with Jeff Sipe. We were discussing various projects we had done, when Jazz Is Dead came up. At that point, I realized that Jazz Is Phish needed to exist, especially in a year that saw the Phish and Dead communities come together with Trey Anastasio’s participation in the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well performances. I decided to assemble a mix of musicians that included those that grew up on the music, and those that had never listened to the music before.
3. The music of James Brown and Phish is adored by folks, young, old, and in between. What about their music do you feel gives it this cross-generational appeal?
MC: Both of these artists have extremely different music. James Brown’s music is simple with a tapestry of complexity in the layers, but always delivers high-energy, extremely fun tunes that appeal to anyone regardless of age! Phish music encompasses a huge variety of genres and hybrids of styles with amazing tension and release. The music Phish creates makes it possible for several entry points into their unique world. There is something for most people whether it’s long progressive compositions, quick funky numbers, or a secret language within their improvisation. Their amazing live performances, huge fan-base, massive venue settings and cutting edge light show makes the live experience undeniable for anyone old or young.
AC: For James Brown the appeal is that it is so badass and funky that no matter who you are, how old you are, or where you come from, the funk is undeniable. His ballads and his upbeat songs alike are well crafted, filled with intricate layers, straight ahead and topped with memorable melodies and amazing vocals. For Phish, the appeal is the unique aspect of the band. It is a group that for many, opens the door to a new way of looking at music. The classical influences on the compositions, the jazz theory infused improvisation and the playful quality of the songwriting are masterfully done in a way that rarely comes together so well. The closest thing to the experience of Phish, in my opinion, is the music of Frank Zappa, although I find the music of Phish to be far more accessible to the non-musician.
4. The James Brown Dance Party is constantly rotating musicians. What type of preparation goes into getting each respective ensemble seasoned for the stage?
MC: As Music Director, I try to provide anything necessary for the players to feel comfortable with our arrangements. We provide charts and notes when necessary. We strive to play with the best players in any given region we are performing in which makes it easy since they know how to prepare and are true professionals. Often we only need a quick rehearsal and sound check to work out some intros and endings. James Brown music is also widely known and performed. I don’t think you are allowed to buy a saxophone without learning some James Brown…
AC: We put in the time on the front end so that in some respects all the musicians have to do is show up for soundcheck and we are ready to go by showtime. Finding the right musicians is key. Musicians that know and love the music, are willing to shed on the songs and the charts, and come prepared, are who we seek out and what makes the performances so tight. It doesn’t hurt that at each show we try to include musicians like Fred Thomas, Mousey Thompson, Leroy Harper Jr. and Jerry Poindexter that had played with James for years and bring the authenticity to the group.
5. With these projects, where and how do you draw the line between replication and reinvention?
MC: With The James Brown Dance Party we try to play things close to the tapes but still allow our high caliber players to improv and extend sections. We also adapt things depending upon the vocalist.
Jazz Is Phish is a complete reinvention of Phish music. We may keep the style the same as the original but the fact that half of our band didn’t listen to Phish until this project makes even those renditions stand apart form the original. In Jazz Is Phish we are comprised of Jazz, Funk, Gospel, Soul, R&B, and Pop and Rock musicians each bringing their own flavor to the music. Which was by design. Having only a few players familiar with Phish keeps the overall sound fresh yet familiar.
AC: The James Brown Dance Party is not about replicating or reinventing. To replicate James Brown would involve someone trying to BE “James Brown” and in my opinion, nobody can BE “James Brown”. He was a one of a kind performer and trying to replicate him, to me, would be sacrilegious. It’s more about loving his music and getting well known musicians to express themselves through soloing and grooving on the tunes. We perform the songs true to form for the most part, but we allow space for the amazing musicians we have to let loose.
With Jazz Is Phish, we are completely reinventing the music. While some songs are closer to form than others, each song takes it’s own shape through, if nothing more, the collective influences of the players involved. As many members were not familiar with Phish coming in to the project, there are no preconceived notions of how the songs should be. That combined with the fact that all of the vocals are replaced with horns and strings, each song feels completely fresh.
6. On a musical level, what was it like growing up in the Chase household?
MC: Piano lessons at an early age and once we were past the 5th grade we got guitars and drums kits. The best gift you can give a few imaginative minds… Our parents didn’t anticipate how loud we would get at times, but always encouraged and supported us in our passion. Our mom and sister took piano lessons as well but neither considers themselves musicians. We didn’t have much guidance in music, it was all very explorative. Our grandma was a singer and did push us to get voice lessons. We had a very large peer group of musicians and several bands were formed out of that circle including the Bridge, the Bluegrass Band Smooth Kentucky, and our old original project Black Eyed Susan.
AC: As the younger brother of somewhat of a child prodigy, and someone that was put into music lessons when I was 5 years old, I don’t remember life without music. We always had instruments in our home and as we got older the amount of instruments and musicians around continued to grow. For me, life was always about playing music and performing, whether it was in school or at home.
7. In these post-James Brown years, where does JBDP fit in respect to carrying on the legacy of the Godfather of Soul himself?
MC: We are just trying to celebrate the Legend and bring people together from different walks of life on stage and in the audience.
AC: I think the JBDP is carrying on the legacy in a great way. By involving older musicians that toured with James with younger well-known musicians from various music scenes, I feel like we are doing a part in keeping the music of James Brown relevant to new generations of music fans that wouldn’t necessarily be checking out the music in a live setting if it weren’t for the All Star format.
8. Jazz Is Phish has recently gone into the studio. Could you shed a little light on what we can expect to hear from these sessions?
MC: It’s a surprise.
AC: You can expect an incredible lineup of musicians, some of which you would never have expected to hear performing Phish tunes, performing unique interpretations of the music at a very high level.
9. If stranded on a desert island, and you could either have a Phish album or a James Brown album, which would you prefer?
MC: I don’t know. That’s tough. James Brown would keep me in a better mood.
AC: I think I would take the album Billy Breathes because it seems like a good album for being stranded on a desert island.
10. In relation to band and audience, what does the word ‘synchronicity’ mean to you?
MC: Reaching a moment or several moments where the music plays the band and the energy from the audience drives the music.
AC: Synchronicity is a point when the band and audience are sharing in a special moment where the stars are aligning. I think it starts with the musicians having their ears open and allowing the music to come to them rather than forcing out things to say. When you combine that with an attentive audience that is in the moment with their enjoyment of the music, something magical happens. I’d call that synchronicity.
It’s a safe bet that if you and the rest of the showgoers bring enthusiasm and attentive ears to the upcoming James Brown Dance Party and Jazz Is Phish performances, Adam, Matthew, and their supergroup of cohorts, will no doubt bring the funk and fury to the stage, leaving all those in attendance scooping their jaws off the floor at the close. Synchronicity is their business, and leaving satisfied customers in their wake is the mission. So get synchronous. Get satisfied. Get your face melted. And don’t forget your dancing shoes!
Words & Questions by Russell S. Glowatz
James Brown Dance Party
January 23 @ Asheville Music Hall, Asheville, NC (tickets)
January 29 @ Mezzanine, San Francisco, CA (tickets)
February 19 @ Howard Theatre, Washington, DC (Check JBDP site for updated ticket info)
James Brown Dance Party tour will feature members of James Brown Band, Sly And The Family Stone, CeeLo Green Band, Alicia Keys Band, John Legend Band, Snarky Puppy, Trey Anastasio Band, Lettuce, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Eric Claptons Band, Billy And The Kids, Tea Leaf Green, RAQ, Jazz Is Phish, Tenacious D Band, Breakestra, The J.B.’s, and more! (Check event listings for exact lineups.)
*Stay up-to-date with JBDP @ their website and on Facebook
Jazz Is Phish
February 10 @ Blind Tiger, Greensboro, NC (tickets)
February 11 @ Southland Ballroom, Raleigh, NC (tickets)
February 12 @ Asheville Music Hall, Asheville, NC (tickets)
February 13 @ Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA (tickets)
February 18 @ The Hall at MP, Brooklyn, NY (Check JIP site for updated ticket info)
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