A brief history of noodling: Back in the days when jazz was pop music and swing bands roamed the earth, it was common for horn players to “noodle” around the melodies of popular favorites. Benny Goodman was an expert noodler. So was Louis Armstrong.
Then in the 1940s came be-bop, a music that demanded more technique. Veteran noodlers were ridiculed as moldy figs. It’s been up and down ever since: Cool jazzers didn’t noodle, but Dave Brubeck did; Miles Davis never noodled, but many who followed in his footsteps did. Jazz fusion was the big Ramen noodle, a yammering, highly technical cacophony of questionable nutritional value.
These days, noodling is the province of spring-water hippies. Improbably enough, it also has become big business. While the music world spent the past few years obsessing over grunge, a grass-roots, militia-movement-style takeover of the amphitheaters of America progressed virtually unnoticed. The bands responsible — staffed mostly by wonky, bearded, computer-literate, sensitive guys — are everywhere, with operations that stretch to every corner of the Internet. You know the list: Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Dave Matthews Band, God Street Wine, Rusted Root.
Then there are Phish, the slipperiest of the lot, a Vermont group prone to outbursts of barbershop-quartet harmony, vacuum-cleaner solos and neoclassical gibberish. While most noodle rock ambles in circles, Phish lead listeners on a conceptual journey. Phish cater to those unmoved by grungy angst and bored by arena-rock regimentation. Phish are probably the most self-indulgent act ever to sell out New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Phish are also getting the last laugh. A Live One, Phish’s twin-disc live offering, turns out to be the definitive statement of the jam-band aesthetic, a noodler manifesto.
Regardless of your noodle tolerance, A Live One contains everything you need to know about Phish and just about everything that’s worth knowing about the genre. The album’s 12 selections are precision minded and crisply executed, notable for their elaborate tension-building schemes and chamber-group division of labor, in which the roles of soloist and accompanist are fluid. And at the very moment Phish seem poised for a commercial breakthrough, A Live One glories in avowedly noncommercial, determinedly adolescent music distinguished by outbreaks of fey vocal nonsense, contrived dissonance and lyrics like “Control for smilers can’t be bought/The solar garlic starts to rot.”
The mistake, of course, is to look to Phish for deep meaning or any meaning at all. The band, led by guitarist Trey Anastasio, doesn’t really write songs; it creates platforms for noodling and then dutifully supplies clean, precise improvisations that are often compared to Sun Ra but have much more in common with Pat Metheny or (yikes) Al Di Meola. Until the solos start, Phish are mostly nonsense; their compositions wade through vaguely funky vamps, fishing for the next profound idea. They’re like Zappa, except without Zappa’s determination to destroy conventional notions of guitar heroics.
Instead, Anastasio prefers to gnaw at the edges of convention, twisting familiar bits of blues and rock guitar into a palatable post-fusion mélange in which melodic continuity is only one consideration. He’s not a groundbreaking soloist or a technical wizard, but he does have a good grasp of idioms and styles and knows how to milk a note or phrase for maximum dramatic impact. His instrumental voice is the glue that holds together otherwise disjointed moments like the gospel-shout chorus on “Chalkdust Torture,” the vaguely gritty middle section of “Gumbo” and the jumpy stop-and-start grooves of the live staple “Harry Hood.”
Even at their most excessive, Phish pull off conceptual leaps that elude their jamming brethren. The music, both in concert and on the carefully recorded A Live One, revolves around changes in texture and color rarely found in arena-level rock. Things evolve right before your ears: A knotty little phrase blossoms into a sunny reggae lilt, the tiniest noodle becomes a major theme. The soloists may not be Coltrane, but they’re better than credible. Anastasio improvises with a dexterity and authority long missing from the brute-force hammering that dominates alternative rock. And while selections like the 30-minute “Tweezer” feel like novelties aimed at too-stoned-to-care concertgoers, a case can be made that these songs are the ideal soundtrack for the alienation, information overload and various other crises that plague this modern world. Yeah, the solar garlic is rotting — there’s nothing we can do. Might as well noodle on.