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Phil Lesh Reflects on His Influences

Jul. 2, 2008
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PhilLesh can remember the very moment he knew he wanted to be a musician. It was 1944, Lesh was 4 years old and his grandmother had the radio tuned to a broadcast of the Symphony No.1 by Johannes Brahms. The movement’s tympanic opening and regal structure captivated the future Grateful Dead bassist, setting the youth on a course that would determine his life. “I knew right away that I wanted that, whatever it was,” says Lesh, who will bring Phil Lesh and Friends, his Dead spinoff band, to Summerfest on July 4. “It just flattened me against the wall. I ended up listening to the whole symphony.”

The Brahms symphony, considered to be one of the 19th-century com poser’s most emblematic works, gave Lesh a musical appreciation and grounding in a broader compositional discipline unusual to rock musicians.

It also led the Berkeley, Calif. native on an impressive musical journey that preceded his chance mid-1960s meeting with bluegrass banjo player Jerry Garcia.

“When I was 14, I started playing the trumpet,” says Lesh, who earlier had learned the violin. “I played in dance bands—we called them ‘big bands’—and then moved into jazz.” His new musical interest morphed into experimentation in avant-garde and “free” jazz while he was a student at Mills College in neighboring Oakland, Calif. While at Mills, Lesh studied with Italian mod ernist Luciano Berio, an early experimenter in electronic music who also counts minimalist com poser Steven Reich among his students. Lesh’s early classical leanings, coupled with a new found interest in modern jazz, led the musician to the discovery of his two primary musi cal influences, early American modernist Charles Ives and jazz reed player John Coltrane.

“We all love the great masters [like] Bach, Brahms and Beethoven, but music speaks most clearly when it comes from one’s own time,” Lesh explains. “Ives is from the early 20th century, not particularly of my time, but of a more heroic generation. The sound of Ives’ music is the sound of inner consciousness, with all its side conversations going on during the main melodies. It really speaks to me.” Ives, who ran a successful insurance company by day, was considered the first American classical composer of significance. He completed his first symphony as his senior thesis at Yale University, then went on to experiment with early elements of modern music, including polytonality, aleatoric elements and quarter tones. The unique approach appealed to Lesh, who sees it as in keeping with Coltrane’s fluidity and experimentation.

“What do I have to say about ’Trane?” Lesh asks. “His music is very florid, convulsive, evocative, volcanic, and it all moves very steadily in its flow.” Coltrane also had a strong influence on the music of the Grateful Dead, who were looking for interesting ways to extend their concert “jams” without continuous repetition of the melody line. Coltrane’s modal use of the drone, sustained notes characteristic of world music from Scottish bagpipes to Indian sitars in his early ’60s compositions “Africa” and “India” allowed the jazzman to weave varied melodic and rhythmic elements in and around the drone, enabling musical improvisation without sacrificing a solid through-line.

“It was a logical extension of what we wanted to do,” Lesh says. “The improvisa tion over the drone note derives from ethnic music practices the world over, and helped us figure out how to play longer in new, more interesting ways.” The influences of Coltrane, Ives, Brahms and a host of others have seen their way to and through Lesh’s music, both as a mem ber of the Dead and leader of Phil Lesh and Friends, a band he sees as bringing new life to the Dead’s music.

“The Dead is repertory music, like a string quartet or a symphony, and my band inter prets the Dead’s music,” Lesh says. “We’re performing with an entirely new set of musicians—and that’s improvisation in itself—and looking for different musical roads down which to take in the music.”

Despite being 68 and having had severe health issues in the past decade, including a liver transplant and prostate cancer, Lesh says he has renewed energy, which he has no qualms about unleashing for his Summerfest date. “We’re going to rock the socks off that place,” he adds.

Phil Lesh and Friends play the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard on July 4 at 8 p.m.

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