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Communication breakthrough

ASPEN Sue Anastasio has a nickname for her husband Trey, the former singer-guitarist of jam band extraordinaire Phish: the Relentless Communicator. Apart from whatever dynamic reigns in the Anastasio household, the name comes from Trey’s outpouring of music. Over the 21-year history of Phish, the band toured constantly, playing lengthy shows anchored by Anastasio’s winding, conversational guitar solos. The four-piece band released 11 studio albums – a modest number that is supplemented by the enormous output of live releases. Outside of Phish, Anastasio led a free jazz band, Surrender to the Air; toured and recorded under his own name; and released a CD of his orchestral works, “Seis de Mayo.” And if you happened to find yourself holed up backstage, or in the Barn, the rustic Vermont studio where Phish did its recording with Anastasio, there was a good chance your name might appear as co-writer of a Phish song.”If somebody’s sitting in the room, I’ll write with them,” said Anastasio by phone. “That’s the Relentless Communicator thing.”Recently, Anastasio has been living up to the nickname more than ever. After Phish broke up in 2004 – a disbanding announced with an Internet posting by the Relentless Communicator – Anastasio went right back to work writing songs. The result was last year’s “Shine,” a CD that shows a fairly clean break with the way Anastasio had worked in Phish. The album has a punchy pop-rock feel, with none of the extended jams or twisted structures that distinguished Phish’s music. The album was made not in the Barn, and not with Phish’s usual collaborators, but in Atlanta, with rock producer Brendan O’Brien.The biggest departure, however, was on the lyrical side. Anastasio wrote all the lyrics for the whole album, a first. The lyrics that poured out of Anastasio were not the impenetrable inside jokes, or the goofy wordplay that marked much of Phish’s earlier output. Instead, they seemed to add up to an actual statement from Anastasio, sentiments about the end of Phish and embracing a future outside of it. The lyrics are circular, dreamy and never add up to concrete narratives yet, by the end of “Shine,” it has added up to a true revelation of where Anastasio stands in his post-Phish existence: optimistic, open and ready to move on. “I was becoming more desperate to say what was on my mind,” said Anastasio, who co-founded Phish, with drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon, in 1983 at the University of Vermont. (The lineup would be filled out with keyboardist Page McConnell in 1985.) “I was a little sick of the goofiness, to be perfectly honest. I wanted to say things that were closer to my heart.”Anastasio hits that mark on “Shine.” The opening title song lays out a simple plea to former bandmates, to the extremely loyal fans to accept change and embrace the future: “When the day’s come and gone/You know we all ride on.” “Love Is Freedom” acknowledges the difficulty of saying goodbye (“This pain I would not have known, had you not arrived”) but argues for letting go when the time comes. None of the songs break the six-minute mark. It is a far cry from dance-happy, nonsensical Phish epics like “Weekapaug Groove” and “Tweezer.””Our patterns of writing were established,” said Anastasio, who often extracted lyrics for Phish songs from poetry written by his childhood friend Tom Marshall. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get away from Phish.”Anastasio is playing his stripped-down songs in a stripped-down ensemble. While earlier versions of his group featured as many as 10 players, the band he brings to Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ June Festival this week features four instrumentalists bassist Tony Hall, drummer Raymond Weber, and keyboardist Ray Paczkowski plus two backing singers, Christina Durfee and Jennifer Hartswick, who also play some trombone and trumpet, respectively.Anastasio’s next musical step appears to be something that combines the musical adventurousness of Phish with his newfound lyrical direction. “Bar 17” is scheduled for release late this summer. The album features numerous strands of players: members of Phish; members of Anastasio’s bands; the Nashville Chamber Orchestra; and keyboardist John Medeski, from Surrender to the Air. Also on board is the Benevento/Russo Duo, who, with Anastasio and Phish bassist Mike Gordon, comprise a band that is touring this summer. (Anastasio says he and Gordon have written a handful of new songs, which they may record with the Benevento/Russo Duo at summer’s end.)Anastasio says “Bar 17” combines elements of his orchestral “Seis de Mayo” and “funky kind of rock stuff. It’s sort of more composed and deep. I wanted to push back deeper into the more extreme song structures.” The words, however, remain simple.Now that he’s composing Phish-like music, and even touring with a Phish-mate, is another Phish reunion a possibility? Anastasio doesn’t say no, and he hints toward maybe, sometime off in the future. He says the members talk a lot, and are processing the issues raised by the breakup. Anastasio played recently on Phish keyboardist McConnell’s forthcoming CD.”It’s only been two years, after what seems like a lifetime,” said Anastasio. “But we’re all open-minded.”


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