Plasma – Trey Anastasio
Elektra Records 62867
Phish resides in a precarious position just above an insatiable blackhole.
Every musical miscalculation or irreconcilable melodic mistake can be
consumed one molecule at a time into the blackhole beneath them. Guitarist
Trey Anastasio may lead, prodding and pushing towards other boundaries, but
the void inexorably rotating below Phish offers him the ability to attempt
guitar pyrotechnics by trial and error.
With Anastasio's eight-piece group – a ragtag agglomeration of horns,
percussion, piano, and everything else – he finds himself in
a less gravitationally contorted domain, one where the heinous mistakes are not
sucked down a cosmic drain. In these new surroundings, Anastasio can't push the group towards some
strange space and pop up into "Wolfman's Brother." As a result, a noticeable
tension arises on Anastasio's new live CD Plasma. The guitarist
wavers between wanting to return to the blackhole and trying to figure out
the new physics. His playing on the big band jazz of "Magilla," for example,
reveals how the new context doesn't allow him to simply comp in some
half-assed jazz-esque/Phish manner and get away with it.
In improvising, where Anastasio should be in his element, the tensions and
problems are most obvious. At times, he lacks subtlety. Tracks such
as "Sand" and "First Tube" go to the ends of the universe and back, being
veritable feasts for the fans. But they are dominated by one voice: an out
of tune melody by an insistent, strident guitar. The opportunity for
emphatic interplay as a result becomes expunged because Anastasio chooses to
dominate, echoing Reggie Lucas circa 1974 with Miles Davis,
best evinced on "Every Story Ends in Stone."
At certain moments where Anastasio forces himself to adhere to the new
locale's physics, as on "Mozambique," the group uses collective
chemistry to explore the changes. The music doesn't have a Michael Jordan one
man show vibe, and the mellifluous results of teamwork mean more, much more.
And really it doesn't make sense for Anastasio to completely ignore the
swirling sounds occurring around him. The convoluted horn parts, most
noticeable on Bob Marley's "Small Axe," and the Anastasio originals
"Curlew's Call," and "Mozambique," reveal an admirable arranging skill. Some
resemblance can be found between Anastasio's arrangements and the
Either/Orchestra's big-band arrangements on their 1999 release More
Beautiful than Death — a crowning achievement for Anastasio, given the
annual DownBeat and Jazziz awards Either/Orchestra has compiled over the
years for "best jazz arrangements" and "best big band recordings." If only
he had shown more a desire to fully realize the potential of the
arrangements and ignored his past general relativity experiences,
Plasma could have been genuinely interesting.
Instead, Anastasio too often drives against the grain like a whirling
dervish in an effort to create his cherished blackhole. For almost twenty
years, it has served as a security blanket. When in doubt, the void
protected him from having to fully commit to any one genre or melodic lead,
but to tinker in between. The momentary flashes of musical commitment on
Plasma make the voyage not entirely fruitless, just filled with more
physics related inquires of "what if?" and "why not?"