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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2004/10/30
by John Zinkand

Genres of the Jam

I’ve noticed lately that as soon as an opinion of a band is put out there by a fan, there’s a quick and immediate response trashing that opinion and band (and sometimes the person who posted the comment). For such a huge and diverse music scene as the jamband scene, that just doesn’t seem right. I’ve seen it first hand with responses to articles I write about certain bands here or on message boards, and I see it all the time at all the different jamband boards I visit on a daily basis to keep up with what’s going on in the scene. I can’t help but think back to the words of wisdom from some friends of mine that had a band at Tufts University back in the late 80’s and early 90’s called Glorified Chicken. They had a song called "Funk It Til it Boils" that contained a lyrical gem of wisdom well beyond their years: "Music is for music’s sake, demands its own respect. Each style has its own regards, no one way is correct." If there is one thing in this life that is subjective, it’s music. Frank Zappa said "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." In many regards, he was right on. It’s hard to describe the feelings that music exudes in us and it’s even harder to describe what the music was doing and how it sounded to others. But a description like, "those guys suck" does very little for anybody. And with so many different sub-genres within the genre of jam music, those types of comments are unnecessary. I say try to appreciate the different styles and bands in the scene for different occasions, times of the day, moods etc.

For instance, at the top tier for me are the bands that just floor me when I see them live. These are bands that have strong guitarists and strong drummers. For me, that is the ultimate live jam experience. My current heavyweights are Umphrey’s McGee, Garaj Mahal, and the newly regrouped Aquarium Rescue Unit. For flat out sick live music, serious tension and release jams, incredible skill on their instruments, and some major rockin’ out, these are my favorite live bands. There is nothing I would rather do than watch Jake Cinninger rip off a serious solo while Kris Meyers backs him up with lightning fast rolls and power bass drum fills. Or digging on Kai Echardt’s sick bass playing while Fareed Haque plays a complex solo on his sitar-guitar and Alan Hertz drives the powerful percussion rhythms. And although it’s been quite some time now, I still remember Jimmy, Oteil, and Jeff as a power trio beyond compare when it comes to power, dexterity, grace, and passion when they synch up live on stage. That’s the live rocking jam music I love most. But as sure as I post my opinion out there, it will be trashed. Comments like, "those guys have no soul," "they can’t bring the funk," or "that music is completely self-indulgent" are sure to follow. Heck, I even agree with them some of the time. But that’s what’s great about this scene. When I’m in the mood for something with a little more soul, that’s what I listen to.
When the guitar jams get too intense and the compositions a little too technical, there’s always the funky genre of the jamband scene to enjoy. There’s the straight up hard funk of Galactic. Stanton Moore’s other project Garage A Trois is more funky good stuff. Then there’s Robert Walter’s 29th Congress if one is in the mood for some funktified Hammond B-3 Organ action. Even Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet can put out some funky goodness. And of course there are the heavyweight funksters like George Clinton and P-Funk or Bernie Worrell. But some folks think these bands are boring or need more variation in their songs, and that is true for many people.
One genre that I often get bashed for when I state my approval of their music is the up-and-comers. God forbid you post on some jamband message board that you like Raq or The Breakfast. This will surely bring out venomous critics from the woodwork making astute observations that these guys are just trying to mimic Phish. And that may be true. When I play my guitar I mimic all sorts of bands. But when I see a band like Raq or The Breakfast, I try to look beyond their obvious influences and appreciate what they do have….raw talent. No, maybe they have not cultivated it to a point where they have an utterly unique sound yet, but the foundation of skills and passion is there. These are the bands I like to watch as they progress, come into their own, and grow as they learn. I like that they’ve got a raw hunger that is appealing to witness live and knowing that they will only get better and carve out their own unique sound as time progresses.
Of course there are the classics: bands like Phish, The Allman Brothers, The Dead, Phil Lesh and Friends, and Ratdog. Some critics would say that they are too old, too tired, that the music is stale. In some senses, I agree. But in other ways I completely disagree. It’s great to hear many of the original players in our scene get up there with some new faces and put new spins on some of the old classics. Will the Allmans ever be the same without Duane and can The Dead ever reach the soulful highs they hit when Jerry Garcia led the band? No. But does that mean they should give up? I don’t think so. These bands put out the classics that thousands of other bands try to emulate. It’s great to see them truckin’ on. And while their newer tunes are not always their best stuff, at least they are still writing and producing new music, which makes them very vital to the scene in my eyes. Besides, there’s no way I could just give up listening to all the classic tunes and jams from these types of bands.
Other times the mood my strike for music that is a little meatier, complex, or highly skilled. That’s when I break out the Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, Oteil Burbridge, or Stanley Clarke. These guys all innovate on their instruments to produce music that is unique and very difficult to play. I love watching musical heavyweights play their instruments because it is a feat of amazement to me. Often after seeing this type of music live, I go home thinking I should never pick up my guitar again. But then I remember that this type of music is not the only genre out there. Yes, it is impressive to be able to make your instrument produce sounds that no one else can make it produce, but it is also impressive to be able to write a solid song. That’s why I can turn right around and listen to bands like The Big Wu or Moses Guest. These are bands that write songs that resonate with me. I love their lyrics, their relatively simple song structures, and their vocals. It can’t always be sick jams and technical prowess all the time. And if I want a little more bass in my song-oriented music, I bust out some reggae. Tunes from Burning Spear or John Brown’s Body can soothe the soul and make you dance at the same time.
This brings me to another favorite genre for me when it comes to live music: music that just makes you shake dat ass. Sometimes you don’t want jams that stop on a dime or change key and time signatures. Sometimes the old classics won’t do and you want to hear something more danceable than bands that just write solid songs. Sometimes you just want to party hardy and dance all night long. That’s when bands like Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Particle, or Vinyl would be right up your proverbial alley. Bands like these put out a danceable funky groove that can last for hours and hours the perfect party music. You can rage, have a discussion with your friends every once in awhile, and even take a break now and again. There’s no one "sick song" that you could miss. Instead, you can come and go as you please and party down to a groove that lasts for hours.

Of course there are many more sub-genres that I enjoy listening to like straight ahead old school jazz, bluegrass, pop, bizarre music (Critter’s Buggin’, Les Claypool) or even some 80’s rock (what can I say, I sometimes am nostalgic for the music of my youth). The point is that there is a ton of great music out there to enjoy or not enjoy. I just think people should try to get out of the mindset that there needs to be one band in their life and therefore all other music pales in comparison. Musicians themselves rarely rank on other bands because they do understand that diversity in music is one of the most beautiful qualities of their precious art. They understand inherently what Glorified Chicken talked about all those years ago. "We’re all brothers in a special way and music is the bond. So brothers, brothers, brothers, unite yourselves as one. There’s just too much competition and not enough recognition."

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