Thursday, April 28, 2022

Music to Get Lost In: A Brief Introduction to Jam Bands

What's a jam band?

I like all kinds of music: blues, rock, psychedelic, R&B, jazz and ocassionally even folk/bluegrass and their offshoots. And I especially like long, well-developed performances that I can get lost in -- the kind of music that musicians love playing as they engage a melody and soar side by side like the Blue Angels in tight formation and then diverge into solo musical loops and barrel rolls, eventually converging back at the melody where they started. This kind of musical aerobatics is the domain of the jam band. 

In introducing its comprehensive and always-growing list of jam bands, Wikipedia summarizes:  "Jam band performances often feature extended musical improvisation ('jams') over rhythmic grooves and chord patterns, and long sets of music that cross genre boundaries."  

Elsewhere, Wikipedia traces jam band origins: "The jam-band musical style spawned from the psychedelic rock movement of the 1960s. The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band became notable for their live improvisational jams and regular touring schedules, which continued into the 1990s." Wikipedia also identifies the "stylistic origins" of jam bands to include:  jazz, folk, country, psychedelic rock, progressive rock, jazz fusion, blues, rock, and Southern rock. In fact, many jam band tracks (songs) seem to slide effortlessly among several of these musical genres within the same piece. 

(Rather not read my wise & wonderful background info? Then scroll down & start listening.)

What's so great about jam band music?

Individual jam band tracks (songs) are typically much longer than pop music pieces, lasting up to 1/2 hour or longer. So a jam band piece can take the time to develop and evolve through varying forms, structures, solo instrumentations and rhythms. Because the musical piece moves fluidly in and out of different genres, jam band music has a timeless quality about it. A typical song doesn't feel dated, but retains some of the classic qualities of each of the different genres that inspire it.

Jam band pieces can behave like mountain streams racing downhill. Comprised of different rivulets which converge and mesh into a tightly blended melody and then, as though hitting a rock, songs split apart into different smaller streams that you can follow as you focus on the guitar, keyboard, sax, violin or other solo instrument. For this reason I prefer to listen with headphones or earbuds in order to hear the distinct instruments and sub-melodies in different parts of my sound field -- some in the left ear, some in the right ear, others appearing in the center.

What about lyrics? 

For me, lyrics can be problematic, since I often find the musical composition and instrumentation of a song to be completely immersive while the lyrics can act like a sort of speed bump. By attempting to elicit my sympathies or empathies or passions over issues such as lost love, injustice, etc., lyrics seem to be trying to recruit me to share a songwriter's mood or grievance. Sometimes they represent feelings that I'm simply not interested in engaging. When I come to get lost in the music, I want to simply hear music. Period. And I want to be able to bring my own feelings to the party, unshaped by somebody else's lyrics. 

Happily, in most jam band pieces, the lyrics, at most, serve to introduce a melody or a musical home base to which the band returns briefly throughout the song.  For the most part, however, you can float lyric-free and ride along with the solo instrumental musician who's turn it is to take the lead at any point in time.

My First Jam Band Experiences 

My first jam band experience, like that of so many baby boomers, was courtesy of the Grateful Dead. The specific piece that got me hooked was Truckin' on their beautifully-produced (and live) triple album Europe '72.  

What blew me away was that this mostly instrumental 13-minute piece seemed to go on and on, morphing into several different musical genres, even becoming abstract at times. It was completely different from the 3-5 minute vocal-driven, repetively structured tunes that dominated the pop radio playlists of the time. I listened to it over and over, each time discovering new hidden instrumental gems. I added other extended pieces from that album to my playlist, like Morning Dew and Prelude which, to me, seemed abstract, equally improvisational and downright exciting!  Listening to this album was always a put-on-the-headphones and close-your-eyes kind of experience. I nearly wore out all of its vinyl tracks.

From the Grateful Dead, I moved on to the Allman Brothers Band and then other jam bands. I started to search for albums with live, well-developed pieces (over 10 minutes) that showcased individual band members' virtuosity. And I learned to endure recordings that included a lot of crowd noises, hooting, whistling, etc. I've learned that the best live albums are produced so as to drive this extraneous noise into the background while capturing just enough audience sounds to help the listener understand how the crowd helped inspire the bands' performances. 

Some Recommendations and a Sampler for Jam Band Newbies

Over the years, I've decided that the best way to find jam band music is to search YouTube. Most jam bands have their own YouTube channels where they post live concerts, cuts from albums, etc. There you can listen to entire pieces, watch the band perform and decide if you like what you're experiencing. So I start by exploring YouTube and then make a list of stuff I want to purchase as MP3s. I then take this list to MP3 Caprice, buy the tracks I want, download them and enjoy them. (For detailed info on owning and streaming your own music see my earlier article Replacing Google Play Music: How I Store & Stream 22 GB of My Own Music (MP3s) for a One-Time Cost of $7.99)

But it doesn't make sense to spend a lot of time talking (or in my case writing) about jam band music. The best way to learn about it is to just jump in and begin experiencing it.  Below are samples from a few of my favorite jam bands. There are also lots of links where you can learn more about the band and buy the piece that's in the sample. Enjoy!

The Grateful Dead: Truckin' 

The Grateful Dead: Fire on the Mountain


Go deeper: 

Allman Brothers Band: Mountain Jam (Theme From “First There Is A Mountain”)


Go deeper: 

The String Cheese Incident: Missin' Me

The String Cheese Incident: Black Clouds


Go Deeper:

Tedeschi Trucks Band: Bound for Glory


Tedeschi Trucks Band: Uptight 

Go Deeper:

Phish: Chalk Dust Torture


Phish: Ghost


Go Deeper: 

Honorable Mention: Check These Out!

A Few Jam Band References