Like the CD that bears his name, Page McConnell is deceptively ambitious. As member of the definitive jamband Phish for over twenty years, the Philadelphia native played an integral yet understated role in how the Vermont-based quartet defined itself and its music. Ultimately taking a background role, the sounds of McConnell's keyboardswhether grand piano, organ or panoply of electric instruments including clavinet and synthesizerswere nevertheless fundamental to Phish's largely improvisational approach to performing and recording.
McConnell's ingratiating vocal style also served as a key element in Phish's sound when he sang solo as well as when he joined in with the eccentric harmonies the group often utilized as an instrument in and of itself. The vulnerable quality in the man's voice belied an inner strength then as now. In the wake of the release of his eponymous solo album, McConnell prepares to take to road to play it.
This is not, however, McConnell's first venture outside the aegis of Phish. During the latter years of the band's existence, McConnell also fronted Vida Blue, at its core a trio including bassist Oteil Burbridge (The Allman Brothers Band and Aquarium Rescue Unit) and drummer/percussionist Russell Batiste (The Funky Meters.). That band's percolating mix of funk, soul and world music was often augmented by The Spam All- Stars, a Miami based-enclave whose horns accented and expanded the influences at the roots of VB.
Speaking openly with AAJ contributor Doug Collette, McConnell describes the process of recording and the challenges and surprises he encountered along the way, as well as the adventure that awaits he and his band mates---of whom he declares himself openly proudas they learn to play together and better over the course of the tour.
All About Jazz: I've been listening to your album a lot lately and enjoying it. The more I listen to it, the more it sounds more ambitious than it seems to be. It covers a lot of ground with a lot of different material on it. Is that what you had in mind or am I reading more into it than is really there?
Page McConnell: Well you know it's funny. It may sound ambitious but it came from humble beginnings. I really didn't have any idea what the end product would be when I started out. It was pretty much just me in a home studio, just working by myself with synthesizers and drum machines and it grew into the monster that it became [laughs]. It took about a year-and-a-half of pretty solid work. So even though I worked on it for a long time, in that sense it was ambitious, but I didn't have an end goal in sight so in that sense it wasn't really ambitious.
AAJ: It almost seemsand I've heard other musicians say it talking about their recordings that part way through a project, it can seem to takes on a life of its own. Is that something you found true here or did you get to the point of mixing it and sequencing it and go, "Wow?!...this is what I have here ?
PM: I would say the former. It did take on a life of its own or at least it revealed itself. I don't even really know what that means, but after I'd written six or seven songs, it began to feel like there was a thread and that although a lot of the songs are really not like one another, there was a certain cohesiveness.
AAJ: I can hear that going from "Beauty of a Broken Heart through "Rules I Don't Know through "Everyone But Me. It seems like there was some continuity there, where you may have stitched it together, so to speak, piece-by-piece. But it really has a pattern to it. The different musicians that appear on the CD have quite varied backgrounds, like Trey [Anastasio, guitarist of Phish] and Jim Keltner [noted drummer for George Harrison, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Ry Cooder and others]. How did you end up playing with those guys? Did they contact you or did you contact them specifically for the tracks they played on? Or was it all serendipity?
PM: Again it was all a case-by-case scenario. The first guy who did any overdubbing with was Jon Fishman (Phish percussionist) playing drums, and at that point I guess I'd written four songs. I'd worked with drum machines, like I said, playing my own bass lines and stuff. I decided it would be really cool to have him play some live drums on these four tracks, specifically "Beauty of A Broken Heart and "Maid Marian. I really wanted to hear what he would do.
So, he played great: it was one afternoon sometime after I'd been working on the project probably for more than half a year at that point. Fish may have come in one other time a few months later for another couple songs and then Adam Zimmon, who I've known through the Spam All-Stars, on guitar [he also was out with Shakira's band for about nine years and played on her first two records], I knew him through the guys in Miami and through stuff I'd done with Vida Blue and he plays on every track on the record.