The Art Of The Sit-In – Jason Crosby

Jason Crosby is one of the guys you root for: a musician’s musician, a consummate pro, a badass improviser, a virtuoso on keys, violin, guitar and other instruments, and just an all around nice guy who paid dues for decades and is now, at 40, getting some of the best exposure of his career.

We remember him fondly as a staple of the New York jam scene, but it’s been nearly two years since Crosby decamped for Marin County, and ongoing appearances with various Bob Weir- and Phil Lesh-associated bands, groups bearing his own name, and freshly minted collaborations such as the Doobie Decibel System, Crosby’s new duo with Moonalice’s Roger McNamee.

We asked Crosby to chat about what he’s been up to and share a few good stories:

JAMBASE: So the last time we chatted, you’d just relocated to Mill Valley and were doing all kinds of interesting things with TRI Studios and becoming part of the local scene. Any regrets on your move?

JASON CROSBY: No, it’s been great here. I’m home. As for TRI Studios, there’s been a little less activity going on over there than maybe last year – the Weir Here broadcasts stopped last year, hopefully those will get going again sometime. But there’s still a hang there. It’s one of the most amazing facilities ever; I just produced an EP over there. Everyone has their own path right now and is doing their own thing.

JAMBASE: You’ve also been part of a number of different Phil Lesh & Friends lineups, from your participation in the scene at Terrapin Crossroads to some of the ones that have come east to places like the Capitol Theater. Talk about those experiences.

JC: What I love about all these different lineups is that for the most part, it’s all people I’ve known throughout the years. I got to reconnect with people like Luther and Jackie and Anders – people I’ve known for a long time or were acquainted with in another time. And it’s just a thrill to play with Phil – and see how thrilled he is getting to play with different people he brings in each time. It’s always different; for that run of New York area shows last year [with Anders and Luther] we learned like a dozen different albums and I think like 105 songs to pull those off. I keep my headphones handy.

JAMBASE: Is it challenging for you to find your groove with each different lineup of players?

JC: I definitely get caught up in the excitement of it. But it all goes back to the joy Phil has rehearsing songs he’s played for 50 years and the different takes on the material. People will say stuff like, well, maybe it’s a vocal that Jerry did and not at all the way Jerry would do it. Is that the wrong way? No, it’s not – to Phil, it’s the way that particular singer is going to take it and deliver it. There’s definitely a lot of learning.

JAMBASE: Is there anyone with whom you’ve been in a Phil lineup that you hadn’t played with before?

JC: Hmm. A lot of them I do know, or I have known at least casually. I was going to say Larry and Teresa, but…no, I did know Larry before that. We’ve all kind of been loosely involved in the bigger scene. There are a bunch who maybe weren’t in Bob or Phil’s scene, but…I can’t think of any right now that I didn’t know.

JAMBASE: You’ve always got a few projects going. Tell me about the Doobie Decibel System.

JC: Ha, yeah, it’s a new thing with Roger McNamee. A fellow musician came up to me not long ago and he was like, man, how did you learn all these tunes and come in and do all these sessions with us? And I was like, hmm, my memory for songs, I guess it’s like the Dewey Decimal System, like in the library. And he jokes, he goes, like Doobie Decimal System? Everyone cracked up. I told Roger the name and he was like, that’s the name.

JAMBASE: Have you known Roger long?

JC: I met Roger through Steve Parish and the TRI scene when Moonalice was playing there. I’ve known Pete Sears for a long time, he sat in with Solar Circus 20 years ago at the Warfield. I’ve known Barry [Sless] for a while as well. It’s great connecting with those guys and they play at Sweetwater [Music Hall] all the time. Living in Mill Valley, I started going down and playing violin with them, and we got friendly and Roger and I hung out a few times, strummed guitars and played songs. We figured out we have a good vocal blend and a similar taste in covers. So we said, let’s get some tunes together.

JAMBASE: Will you guys be playing out more?

JC: We’ve done a few openers at Sweetwater but in November we’re going to open for David Nelson Band and also some shows opening for the New Riders. Once those plans got solidified, we were like, well, we’re going to need a few more songs now because that’s a crowd that comes for multiple shows.

JAMBASE: Are you writing any music together?

JC: We started writing one song, actually, and we’re going to be doing a couple of each other’s originals. We’ll give this time.

JAMBASE: What else do you have coming up?

JC: So I have a gig with Roger Daltrey coming up in a few weeks. It’s for a Teen Cancer America benefit at the end of October. We got an e-mail about a year ago saying the guys in The Who had seen me on a TRI webcast and really liked my violin playing and I might be hearing from them. Eventually I got an e-mail from The Who’s management and that’s how that happened.

JAMBASE: Very exciting! While we’re covering your semi-regular gigs, how about playing with Assembly of Dust?

JC: When I first moved out here, Reid [Genauer] and I talked about me doing it when I can, understanding it might be difficult but that we’d try to make it work. They have a few guys they use when I can’t do it, I think. But it was great playing with Strangefolk at the Vibes this summer. And AOD is coming west in December – I’m going to be doing those shows.

I see the guys from New York. Scott Metzger’s out here more – we always talked about having a hang out here. Recently you probably saw he was playing with Reed Mathis and Cochrane from Tea Leaf, and that conversation led to talking about what else we could do out there, and then Phil hears Scott is out there and suddenly we’re doing a Phil & Friends gig together. It’s great seeing guys like Scott and the New York crew.

JAMBASE: How often do you get back to New York?

JC: Maybe four times a year. Maybe it’ll be more frequently next year. I’m coming out for the Cap shows with Phil in November, and that’ll probably be it for a little while.

JAMBASE: Do you expect to be just as busy in 2015 as this year?

JC: It’s funny I just finished going through all my bookings for 2014 through the end of the year and then I look up and 2015 is a few months away and I’m like, oh, I should probably work on this. I have no clue, but I have a feeling it’ll be more of the same of what had been going on in 2013 and 2014, with additions to the schedule.

JAMBASE: Before I let you go, can you tell me a favorite sit-in story, new or old, of you sitting in with someone or someone else sitting in with one of your bands?

JC: One time Prince sat in with the Blind Boys of Alabama when I was still playing with them. He was side stage with a couple members of his entourage, and me and [Blind Boys guitarist/musical director] Joey Williams are kind of eyeing them from the stage being like, wow, OK, this is happening.

So during our last song, one of the big guys from Prince’s entourage walks over to say something and Joey takes his guitar off his neck and he’s like, OK, here you go, Prince. He and I were trading these licks, and this is the point of the show when it’s the finale and the big time gospel part, and [Blind Boys founding member] Jimmy Carter is out in the crowd and getting people worked up. People see Prince out there, and the crowd is going fucking crazy and the Blind Boys obviously can’t see that so they’re thinking we’re just having a particularly good last song.

In the middle of the song, Prince gets up, takes off the guitar, and suddenly I hear these high notes on my keyboard – Prince is playing the octave shit on my keyboard. I start to move away but he says no, stay, let’s play four-handed, and we do for like 30 seconds that felt like a couple of minutes. And then he took off. Literally. We finished the song and those guys were gone.

JAMBASE: Wow, so when did the Blind Boys figure out Prince was out there?

JC: I think Joey whispered in the ears of some of the guys on stage but I don’t think Jimmy knew until after it was over. I want to say that was in 2009, I think. It’s on YouTube, maybe 10 seconds of it.

JAMBASE: Good stuff, and now I have to ask you for a recent sit-in story, too.

JC: OK, so the last Jason Crosby & Friends show we had at Sweetwater, we were just walking off of the stage at the end, and then we find our Jerry Harrison is there. The manager’s running up, he says, Jerry wants to play one with you guys, you gotta do one more song. The guitar player says to Jerry, OK, can you show me the changes? And Jerry’s like D-D-D-A-A-going on and on, and I think Reed [Mathis] walked in late and we’re all kind of staring at Jerry and he’s going crazy explaining these changes quickly, and Reed says, “Hey can you start that again?” and we all crack up.

So we went out and did this tune that nobody but Jerry knew. It was a song from his old band – not Talking Heads, maybe it was a Modern Lovers song or one of his other solo tunes, I have no idea. But it sounded great and it was a blast.

THE DOSSIER

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