There’s a certain genre of music that goes by the name “Jam Bands.” Most people haven’t heard of it, but it’s my favorite type of music. For years I’ve tried to explain about this kind of music, but most people didn’t understand. Well at least now we have a label.
So what is a jam band?
Well, if you ask me, it’s a modern jazz band, but when you say “Jazz,” people now associate that with two or three styles of music that are not much like the jam band concept. Most “jazz” these days is either that smooth “lite jazz” stuff or it’s fairly esoteric, complicated, and not-very-melodic music.
Jam bands aren’t like that. To me, they ultimately go back to the early days of jazz, which were all about mixing different styles together and improvising around a common melodic theme. But the roots of most current jam band music go back most recognizably to the late 1960s. The Grand Old Men of the jam band movement are considered to be such groups as the Allman Brothers, Santana, and The Dead (who, by the way, are sounding fantastic these days, even without Jerry Garcia). But who were these artists influenced by? Early blues, jazz, and folk/country music.
Since current jam bands like Blues Traveler and Phish get very little airplay, and countless others get no airplay at all, you’d think they aren’t very popular. But you’d be mistaken. These bands often sell out shows at major auditoriums around the country, and you can find their fans everywhere. Many of them have had albums go gold and even platinum based solely on word-of-mouth sales and their existing fan bases. Others don’t do quite that well, but tour regularly and sell enough albums to be considered successful musical enterprises.
To me, the best of them are exemplary of what the early days of jazz were like. A good jazz band will tend to mix multiple styles of music together. They will usually start to play a song in a fairly traditional rock, pop, or blues arrangement, setting down a basic groove and chorus. But then, somewhere in the middle of the song (or what most musicians call “the break,”) the band will simply begin to wander and explore. Different musicians are encouraged to trade solos and improvise around the theme established early in the song. Then eventually–sometimes after a few minutes, sometimes after quite a few minutes–the band finds its way back to the chorus, and finishes off the song in the same basic groove they started in. Then sometimes they’ll stop, or sometimes they’ll move straight into a different song without pause.
It’s not unusual for such bands to play 30 minutes or more without stopping, although typical song length is probably somewhere between 7 and 15 minutes.
Styles tend to vary dramatically, too. A good jam band usually mixes elements of rock and roll, bluegrass, country, cajun, blues, classic jazz, flamenco, even more styles into their mix. This is probably my favorite aspect of the jam band concept, because it gives a complex, multilayered approach to the sound. This, combined with the improvised soloing, tends to keep things constantly fresh.
Of course, some bands trend more to one style than another. Widespread Panic, for example, tends to have a more country feel to most of their work, whereas The Allman Brothers Band has a more blues- and jazz-based sound to most of their current material. Leftover Salmon refers to their sound as “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass,” which is a perfect description: hard-rocking electric bluegrass mixed with a little cajun and other world music elements make them a truly fun listen.
Obviously, this sort of music is not for everybody. I wish it were, though, because I think a lot of people are missing out on some killer music by not checking it out. My favorite jam band radio station on the internet is Leftover Cheese, which frequently includes material from Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, the Derek Trucks Band, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, Bruce Hampton and the Code Talkers, and other well-known and respected jam bands.
You can also check out www.jambands.com for more information.
I know this kind of music isn’t for everybody, but I do hope that by my posting it, some of you will make a nice discovery: cool music you’ve been missing out on.