photo: Jay Blakesberg
On his new album Gilder, he honors these connections by performing solo piano versions of songs by Lesh, Browne, Jenny Lewis, John McLaughlin, Oteil Burbridge and others, with a second album
From his earliest memory to his latest creative expression, Jason Crosby’s conscious existence is entwined with music.
“The first thing that I can remember in life is going to my first piano lesson,” Crosby explains. “It was September of ‘78 and I was four, but I’d already been playing violin for a year and a half.”
Crosby’s parents started him and his three brothers on instruments quite early, not intending to create professional musicians but rather to nurture creativity and stimulate cognition.
While all the siblings took to the experience and remained music enthusiasts, Crosby embraced it on another level. Shortly after completing high school, he began the life of a touring musician that continues to this day.
Actually, to be more precise, his musical travels began a few years earlier. “What took place after graduation was my first-time touring in a non-classical sense,” he clarifies. “I spent four summers touring around the world with an orchestra as a student.”
He traveled to China, Russia, Australia, Germany and even Cuba, where he recalls, “We saw Castro speak in this field. It seemed like the whole country walked there to hear his speech.”
Crosby’s recollection of trying out for the Long Island Youth Orchestra demonstrates why he is still an in-demand collaborator over three decades later. “I auditioned on violin when I was 12 turning 13,” he says. “A lot of the people in the orchestra were seniors in high school, freshman in college. So as I was leaving the audition, the conductor said that I was qualified enough musically, but because I was so young, he told me, ‘You’ll have plenty of opportunities to do many tours.’ Then he kind of smirked and said that he could really use a viola. So I went home and learned the viola clef. Then I went back and auditioned again with a viola because I really wanted to go on the tour.”
Crosby’s passion, commitment and work ethic—not to mention his perfect pitch—have stood him good stead over the course of a career that has found him recording and performing with artists such as Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Jackson Browne, Carlos Santana, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Susan Tedeschi, Father John Misty, God Street Wine, Robert Randolph and The Mother Hips.
On his new album Gilder, he honors these connections by performing solo piano versions of songs by Lesh, Browne, Jenny Lewis, John McLaughlin, Oteil Burbridge and others, with a second album likely to follow. The initial idea of recording a piano record was suggested by members of Browne’s band. However, Crosby added another a layer to it through the compositions he selected.
It all began with a version of Lewis’ “Taffy.”
“I came up with that arrangement of ‘Taffy’ at my house, recorded it into voice memos on my phone and texted it to her,” he recalls. “Within an hour or so, she wrote me this beautiful, glowing text that just filled my heart and kind of confirmed to me that this was a good idea. The really beautiful thing about making this record was that I did that same thing every time I was done. I would send it to the person who wrote it and I’d say, ‘What do you think?’”
Although you spent four years in the youth symphony, was there a particular rock show you attended that helped you imagine an alternative musical path?
Absolutely, and I can give you the date. It was 12/25/92, when I saw God Street Wine at Wetlands. My older brother Brett was a taper and a fan of the band, and knew a couple of the guys casually. He put me in the taper section next to the soundboard and was like, “Check this out.” I remember seeing them and how all of this stuff was flying through my head. I was like, “Yeah, this is something I want to do.”
Shortly after that show, I would sit in high school class and doodle all of their song titles, writing down which ones are on records and which ones they only play live. I was so into them that I would have these dreams that I would be in my school auditorium and God Street Wine would be playing, then Lo [Faber] would say, “Now, we’d like to bring up our friend on keyboards.” I didn’t know them, I would just have these dreams.
Then in ‘97, when I auditioned for them and started playing with the band, it was like, “This is kind of a dream come true scenario.” Later, when they brought me out West [in 2012], that changed my life again, and it was just, “Wow!” They are definitely a common thread as far as making dreams come true. As cheesy as that sounds, it really did happen.
Before that audition, you had already spent a few years straight out of high school touring in Solar Circus. How did that come about?
Again, that was somewhat the product of my family. My brother Brett’s taper buddy was the soundman in Solar Circus, Roger Jones. Brett heard that they were looking for a keyboard player. I had just graduated high school that year and was playing in local bands around Long Island.
I went to this audition in Seaside Heights, N.J., and they took a chance on me. I was a young kid, but they believed in me and took me around the country for five years. It was kind of like my college education because I went right on the road after high school.
You’ve had a longstanding relationship with the Aquarium Rescue Unit guys, which led to a couple tunes on the album, including a version of Oteil Burbridge’s “Water in the Desert.” When did you first connect with them?
Solar Circus used to open up for Aquarium Rescue Unit, and that’s how I first met Oteil, Jimmy [Herring] and Kofi [Burbridge]. I didn’t meet [Jeff ] Sipe until later because Sipe and Colonel Bruce were no longer in the band when Solar was opening. It was the latter-day ARU.
Solar Circus would do this thing where they would play one of Tom Donovan’s songs and then they would leave the stage and let me play whatever I wanted for five minutes or so. They did it at this big festival at Wilmer’s Park [the Autumn Equinox Festival in Brandywine, Md. on Sept. 21, 1996]. I played a couple of minutes of Chopin and maybe a couple of minutes of Dave Brubeck, and let those guys have a break. The ARU guys were really kind to me and Oteil said something like, “When you get older, I’m going to hire you, man,” which I didn’t expect would happen.
Then he got the gig with the Allman Brothers, and I stopped running into him. I was really happy for him, but I figured that I would never see him again. But as fate would have it, he moved to New York City in ‘99 for a few months. He moved to this place with a friend of his who knew me and was like, “Jason plays every Tuesday at this bar called Prohibition.” It was on Columbus and 85th, right around the corner from where Oteil was living. So he came and surprised me at this club.
Right around that time, Kofi had joined The Derek Trucks Band so Oteil was looking for somebody to replace Kofi in the Peacemakers. Kofi played keys and flute and I played keys and violin, so Oteil thought it would be a good fit.
Oteil came to my parents’ house shortly after that. He took the Long Island Railroad out, and we jammed with my little brother, Chris. There are a lot of parallels between me and Chris and Oteil and Kofi. Unfortunately for Oteil and I, we no longer have Chris or Kofi, but the parallels are deep. When he got to my parents’ house, Oteil freaked out because our jam room had the same dimensions as the one where he’d played with Kofi growing up. The drum kit was in the same place; the staircase was in the same place. So that’s where he taught me the Peacemakers’ music, except he moved to drums and my brother Chris played bass. Then Oteil played all Kofi’s keyboard parts on the bass so I would have the individual tracks to learn. That’s how I started with the Peacemakers.
Even though you and Kofi weren’t in the Peacemakers together, the two of you maintained a friendship.
He was my favorite keyboard player in our scene and probably always will be. I looked up to him my whole adult life and he was always so nice to me. We played together on Jeff Sipe’s solo album, Timeless. He only played flute on that record; I was so nervous to do a record with Kofi in which I was the keyboard player. I was like, “God, this is too much.” And he was so fucking cool. He was so gracious, humble and supportive. Me and Chris wanted to be Kofi and Oteil. That’s kind of how we were.
The opening track on Gilder is a cover of John McLaughlin’s “A Lotus on Irish Streams.” Your connection to him came through the 2017 Meeting of the Spirits tour, when you performed in Jimmy Herring’s band and then shared the stage with John’s group to perform the music of Mahavishnu Orchestra. I believe the first time you gigged with Jimmy was in Project Z, which also featured Jeff Sipe and the late, great Ricky Keller. Can you talk about that experience?
I loved that project so much and was so flattered that Ricky had asked me to do it. This was around 2001, and I had already become close with Sipe by working in Susan Tedeschi’s band—it was Oteil who had given Susan my number. So I already knew Sipe well and this was the beginning of me bonding with Jimmy. Ricky made me feel at ease right away and we would do the wackiest stuff. There was one time at the Visulite Theater in Charlotte, where Jimmy and Jeff did this drum-and-guitar duo with these blistering chops.
Ricky knew that I played trumpet growing up, and I had a trumpet with me. He also played trumpet growing up and he had his.
So Ricky wanted the two of us to play this marching band song that I knew from school while Jimmy and Jeff were doing their incredible blistering musicianship thing. And he was like, “But we’re going to play it a half step apart while we walk through the crowd.” [Laughs.] It was so funny, creative and interactive. It was just so Ricky.
When he passed, we were working on a record, which we eventually titled the Lincoln Memorial. He had actually mailed a copy of the masters to me and Sipe on the road, and he passed away in between the time that it was mailed and when we received it. I remember sitting on the back seat of Susan’s bus after it arrived, and we had to take a little time before we could pop it in and listen. We knew there was so much humor and love in there, but we were so sad about Ricky being gone. We were like, “OK, eventually we are going celebrate this.” We did and it was beautiful.
How familiar were you with Mahavishnu or John’s music growing up?
I did not know much at all about Mahavishnu. I had heard of them, but I didn’t know any of their music until I had to learn it. [Laughs.] While I didn’t know John personally, I would go see him. He had a band called The Free Spirits with Joey DeFrancesco—the organist, who recently left us—and Dennis Chambers. I was a big fan of Joey’s—I’m still a big fan of Joey’s—so I would catch him with whatever he was doing, and one of his bands was The Free Spirits with John McLaughlin. I did my research and knew the stuff John did with Miles, like In a Silent Way. I also knew Shakti and the Trio of Doom with Jaco [Pastorius].
After seeing him with Joey, I started to explore his music more, but I never landed on the Mahavishnu stuff. Because I play violin, people always think that I must have always loved Mahavishnu, The Dixie Dregs, Jean-Luc Ponty and Jerry Goodman. It’s not that I disliked any of them, I just didn’t know them all that well because it wasn’t part of my upbringing. I listened to classical music growing up, and then I listened to God Street and Phish and jambands in my late teens.
I’ve expanded my musical palette as my life has gone along, but it wasn’t a childhood thing. I wish that was the case because when it came time to learn his music, there was a lot to learn. I wish it had been ingrained in my brain, like all the classical music and the other stuff that I learned when I was a kid.
John’s writing is so beautiful and melodic. I think sometimes that gets lost in the math-rock aspect of it. The harmony’s so deep and the rhythm’s so deep, and it’s challenging. That was also a challenging show for the audience to listen to—there was four hours of John and Jimmy’s projects and then everyone coming together and doing Mahavishnu. It was a lot to take in.
One night I said hi to a friend of mine after a show. I asked, “How was it?” He looked at me wide-eyed and said, “It was amazing. Mercy! I’ve been beaten into the ground. My brain is exploding with licks and time signatures.” [Laughs.]
What led you to select “A Lotus on Irish Streams” for Gilder?
I chose that one because I felt like it had a lot going on melodically, the original is rubato, and it doesn’t have drums on it. I felt like that would suit the solo piano vibe.
Trying to do something like “Birds of Fire” would’ve been a lot more challenging and I’ll leave that to Gary Husband, who did some solo piano works of John’s more complicated music. He takes it a million places I could never even imagine going. So I wanted to do something that was a little different than that and be sure to make it beautiful.
The project originated with your version of a Jenny Lewis song. How did you initially come to play with her?
Griffin [Goldsmith] and Wylie [Gelber] from Dawes were on a session I was doing with Tim Bluhm and we became friends. Griffin is a big Mahavishnu fan, and I was preparing for the Mahavishnu thing while also doing the session with Tim. So Griffin and I were talking about it, and I invited him out to the LA Mahavishnu show. We hung out, and after that, we just kind of bonded. Then every time I’d come to LA, I would stay at his place with him and his wife. So Griff was the one who introduced me to Jenny and he introduced me to Jackson Browne as well.
Can you talk about coming into Jackson’s band and performing piano on some of the songs that he had originated on that instrument?
Griff introduced me to Jackson, but then I got to know him well through an experience that we had with Jenny, where he was Jenny’s special guest on her record release party in LA. Jackson came to rehearsals and soundcheck and the after-party. He’s not imposing, he’s just a part of what’s happening. He’s just such a great guy.
After the Jenny experience, he asked for my number. I was kind of flabbergasted that somebody like Jackson Browne would want to stay in touch with me but we would text once in a while and he was like, “I want to invite you to my studio.” Then, eventually, it came to light where he saw me and Griffin play at this wine bar, and basically said, “I’ve been wanting to get you over to my studio. I’ve got this tour with James Taylor coming up, and I want to make it special. I was thinking of maybe adding a piano and violin, and I want see if you’re the guy.” He said it wasn’t going to be a formal audition, but before we made it official, he wanted to get together and work on it.
So we worked together for a while. I would hang out at his place, learn his songs and just get into the weeds on his music. Then after a bunch of those hangs, he asked me to play on his record, which I did. I remember him shaking my hand and saying, “Congratulations, you’re on my new album. Would you like to join my band?”
Then a week later, the world shut down due to COVID. This was the first week of March 2020. I didn’t know if that opportunity was going to come back for me because I wasn’t replacing anybody and I thought, “In times of COVID, people are shrinking bands, not adding to them.” But I was still part of his plan and it’s been an amazing experience going around the world, playing that music with him.
You mentioned that you sent a version of each track to the artist. Did James Taylor give you feedback on “Wandering?”
He did. At first we had a little awkward conversation about it because I said, “I recorded one of your songs on the solo piano record I’m doing.” And he was like, “Really, which one are you doing?” I told him “Wandering” and he was like, “I didn’t write that.” [Laughs.] But he did—he was just kind of messing with me. “Wandering” is a traditional tune that he would hear when he would go see folk music with his brothers. When he eventually began playing it, he changed the words, so those are his words and that’s what struck me about the song—“I’ve been wandering early and late/ From New York City to the Golden Gate.” That resonates with me, having grown up and lived in New York City before moving to the Bay Area.
In the end, James told me he appreciated what I did with it. He said, “I really like how you took each verse to a new place because without the lyrics, what are you going to do? The melody’s the same over and over.”
That was not only welcome feedback, but I still kind of get fanboyed out when my phone says “James Taylor text message,” “Jackson Browne text message” or “Phil Lesh calling.” I can’t believe it sometimes. [Laughs.]
Speaking of both Phil and transcontinental relocation, you’re a native New Yorker. What prompted to pull up stakes and head to the West Coast?
I remember it was like a whirlwind. I was out there with God Street Wine playing at Bobby’s studio, TRI, and he sat in with us. The day after the webcast we were at his club Sweetwater and he sat in again. Then we were invited to go to Terrapin Crossroads to meet Phil and get a tour of his club. And then he played with us.
After that, Phil invited me to play with him at The Wellmont Theater [in Montclair, N.J.]. It turned out that he didn’t know that I played keyboards until I sat in with Phil & Friends. He thought I just played violin because that night when God Street played at Terrapin, there was only one keyboard at the club, and [Jon] Bevo played that while I played violin.
Then Bobby asked me to play on Weir Here.
It seemed like there were so many opportunities out there, and I mentioned the thought of moving to Bobby. I’ll never forget it. He said, “If you move here, I’ll keep you working.” [Laughs.] I felt the same sentiment from Phil. So it seemed like the universe was speaking to me.
This was at a time when Terrapin Crossroads and the Family Band were just coming together. What are your memories of that era?
I was so lucky to be there at that time. I got to know Grahame and Brian Lesh, Ross James, Alex Koford and the Terrapin Family Band guys. They were all working at the club, too. They were playing, but they were also employees. It was a family business.
It was great to have that kind of clubhouse and friendship. We all hit it off and started playing together a lot right away. So I moved to this new place not knowing a lot of people, then all of a sudden I had this crew of friends and a place to call home. I actually had a few places, like Terrapin and Sweetwater, where I could walk in and see somebody that I had just met or a find a new friend. It was great.
It’s also been incredible to see the development of Grahame and Alex Koford. The way that they’ve come along musically over that 10-year span is amazing. I feel proud to have been with them on their journey.
You’ve dedicated this album to your brother, Christopher, and you perform one of his songs, “Headed Down to the Library.” What drew you to that one?
My brother Chris was my favorite person in the world, and it’s hard to move on without him, but we all have to do that. When we’re faced with loss, we have to continue forward. That’s what he would want.
My goal is to celebrate his life in music. He left us 300 songs. Half of them were written 20 years ago when we were hanging out in my parents’ basement with Oteil, and the other half were written in the last year of his life. I’ve been going through these reels and I’ve finished an EP and a full-length record of his music. Now, I’m going to be getting guests on there.
Christopher was a librarian for 20 years in addition to being a musician, and he wrote all of these library songs when the pandemic hit. There are a lot of library-themed songs in different styles, like “Late Fine,” which has kind of a Ramones vibe.
I don’t know exactly why I landed on that particular song, other than it felt right. It was hard to record and very emotional, but I’m so glad I did it.