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Published: 2004/03/30
by Benjy Eisen

Seis de Mayo – Trey Anastasio

Elektra Records

Although rock 'n' roll can be unpredictable, certain things are just
understood. Everyone knew that Jim Morrison was going to die young; that
the Dead would play music together again; that Guns 'n' Roses would delay
Chinese Democracy indefinitely; that Elton John would do a Las Vegas
revue; and that Cher's "Farewell Tour" would never really end. Likewise,
every Phish kid knew that Trey Anastasio would one day release an album of
orchestral music. We just didn't expect it'd be like this.

I don't know what we were expecting — perhaps orchestrated versions of true
epics like "You Enjoy Myself," "Divided Sky," "Reba," or "Harry Hood." Not
only do they lend themselves naturally to such a project, but the
expectation was further enhanced after the Vermont Youth Orchestra performed
an orchestrated version of "Guyute" in February 2001.

An expanded version of that arrangement appears here, conducted by the
Vermont Youth Orchestra's Troy Peters but performed this time by the
SEATTLEMUSIC Group. One can guess that the connection came from that
group's participation on Dave Matthews' solo disc, Some Devil, on
which Trey was also involved. Regardless, the choice was clever if not
brilliant. The SEATTLEMUSIC Group made its debut by scoring Mr.
Holland's Opus and has positioned itself as an orchestra specializing in
film scores. While Mr. Anastasio's Opus – "Guyute" – was composed by Trey
and orchestrated with help from Peters, the SEATTLEMUSIC Group gives the
song a distinct cinematic voice. It is a massive and breathtaking
performance and the song has finally realized perfection.

The rest of the disc is neither massive nor perfect — although perhaps
breathtaking at times. And even if you've heard most of the songs on here
before, Seis de Mayo orchestrates them quite differently from other
incarnations.

Yet, Seis De Mayo is not quite an orchestral pop album, the term
frequently used to describe music that was converted to a symphonic
arrangement from its original pop or rock format. It's not quite third
stream either, the genre that sees itself as a jazz and classical meltdown.
Trey's third stream album is yet to come — we're all rooting for it,
naturally, since it's obvious he can reinvent the movement ("fourth
stream?") the way Phish all but reinvented jam rock two decades ago.

But this, this Seis de Mayo, what is this, then? Since none of you
are raising your hands, I'll raise mine. It is a disc of tapas-sized
appetizers, anchored with one considerably grand main course. It is a
trial-sized disc of ideas grounded with one polished headpiece. If you're a
Phish geek like myself you will appreciate the alternate-versions while also
appreciating Trey's alternate vision. But it's not the disc you were
waiting for. That one is yet to come.

Still, most of that tracks are difficult to criticize individually, so
perhaps most of the complaint stems from the fact that each song is
performed by an entirely different ensemble with vastly different
instrumentation, making the album seem not only short but also disjointed.
By themselves, most of these songs (or sketches or vignettes or capsules)
are noteworthy for various reasons:

The quirky "Andre The Giant" is performed by an equally quirky quartet
consisting of Abou Sylla on balafon, Fode Bangoura on djembe, Mike Gordon on
bass, and Trey on guitar. The tune is one of just two tracks that Trey
actually plays on; the other is a beautiful acoustic performance of "The
Inlaw Josie Wales," backed by the Ying Quartet on strings.

The Ying Quartet also performs the orchestral version of "All Things
Reconsidered" — transformed into a squeaky and jarring fugue, it is
possibly the only composition that does not benefit greatly from its new
arrangement. Regardless, the very inclusion of the Ying Quartet is a smart
move and one that makes a lot of sense: The Ying Quartet's LifeMusic
project, sponsored in part by the Institute for American Music, aims to
commission and support works for string quartets which are distinctly
American. Um, HELLO — Id like to nominate Trey Anastasio as an American
composer. Sign him up for the project, please.

On the subject of American art forms, "Coming To," performed by an expanded
ensemble and featuring Jon Fishman on drums, is a celebration of Dixieland.
While it doesn't offer the scored-from-rock familiarity that some of these
other tracks may offer, it is a nice little meditation on jazz heritage and
an extension of some of Trey's other works.

It leads naturally into "Discern (Intro)." Right before the Trey Anastasio
Band took a completed version of this song on the road with them, in May of
2002, Trey had just his horn section – Jennifer Hartswick, Russell
Remington, Dave Grippo, Andy Moroz, and Peter Apfelbaum – record the
introduction. The track is atmospheric and expectant, as if in anticipation
of a chaotic and thrilling climax — which unfortunately never comes. At
least not here.

Similarly, "Prologue" is transformed from the typical start of a Phish song
to a richly imaginative orchestra's prologue. It was recorded in the autumn
of 2001; half a year after Trey debuted the composition live under the name
"Nothing but an E Thing." It later became the opening section of "Pebbles
and Marbles." The orchestral version features members of the Vermont Youth
Orchestra (joined by famed percussionist Cyro Baptista) and was conducted by
its maestro, Troy Peters.

"Prologue" and "Discern (Intro)" both present an interesting problem —
they're wonderful pieces of music, but without any other framework, they
never quite achieve "Guyute"'s cinematic complexity nor the completion that
it offers as a final reward. Seis de Mayo is what happens when
Shakespeare hands in a rough draft of "MacBeth" and the teacher returns it
with high marks but also some red ink. "Guyute" notwithstanding.

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