Keyboardists Reflect On Page McConnell's 50th Birthday

HAPPY 50TH BIRTHDAY
TO PAGE MCCONNELL

Phish keyboardist Page Samuel McConnell was born on this day, May 17, in Philadelphia, back in 1963 - making him the first of the four members of Phish to blow out the candles of a 50th birthday cake. We could think of no better way to celebrate this very special birthday for The Chairman Of The Boards than to get his fellow keyboardists to weigh in on Page's influence on their own playing. We hope you enjoy the results that we rounded up from Joel Cummins, Jason Crosby, Marco Benevento and Matt McDonald.

Joel Cummins
Umphrey's McGee, Digital Tape Machine

How were you first exposed to Page's playing/Phish's music?

As a freshman at the University of Notre Dame in 1993, I quickly discovered that the music scene in South Bend was essentially non-existent. Fortunately, I had friends around me in the dorm from all over the country and we shared music with each other (ahem, CD's and tapes) as we got to know each other's interests. A friend across the hall, Chris McDonnell, was from Greenwich, CT and told me that as a keyboardist, there was a band I had to listen to from the East Coast. He let me borrow the album Rift and I was immediately curious about this completely idiosyncratic sounds which featured a keyboardist who absolutely destroyed the acoustic piano & Hammond organ. I had no idea that there was anyone like Phish out there doing such adventurous "rock music" with a real keyboard player.

I had grown up listening to Chuck Leavell, Bruce Hornsby, Ramsey Lewis & Herbie Hancock, but most of what I knew of their playing came in somewhat more conventional music forms. At the time, I was undecided about what I wanted to do with my life, and Phish certainly helped reinvigorate my interests in music as I saw the possibility of what music could be absolutely explode around me. I acquired a few live tapes, I particularly recall having a recording of the radio re-broadcast of the 12/31/92 show from Matthews Arena somewhere in Massachusetts, I think. I remember that the "Mike's Groove" from that show really stuck with me. The following summer, Phish came through Chicago and I went to my first show on 6/18/94 at UIC Pavilion. I left the show feeling like my mind had been completely reorganized, it was an exciting if daunting & overwhelming feeling. They played a lot of my favorite songs that night, and I then quickly realized that there was even more music to be discovered that wasn't available on any official studio releases. Following that first show I attended, I became a huge fan for the next few years, trying to learn as much as I could about how a keyboard player could fit into a contemporary rock band.

What's been Page's influence on you?

One of the main things that I immediately heard when listening to Page was that he provided a lot of the harmonic context as Trey played a lot of leads and Mike was all over the place on bass. It took me many years of improving my ear training to fully understand what was happening, but I had an inkling of an idea that his additions to the music were often crucial in how the chords & melodic lines flowed together. I also noticed that he was very accomplished at a number of instruments: the acoustic piano, the Hammond B3 organ and Fender Rhodes. I'm not sure if he had the clavinet or Moog out there at that stage, but those arrived shortly after my introduction to Phish if they weren't there already. So the other big thing that I took from watching Page was that there was a lot of creative possibility once the sonic palette is expanded beyond just one keyboard instrument. I am a huge fan of analog instruments and quality sounds and I'm sure that Page had a lot to do with those things mattering for me as well.

Like many, I first traveled to places nearby like Ann Arbor, Indianapolis, Detroit & Cleveland to catch more shows. I think my Phish experience peaked with the Clifford Ball as a friend I drove across the country to catch their first major stand alone event in 1996. I saw a few shows in 1997 & 1998 too, even attended a show in Champaign in 1997 with Umphrey's McGee bassist Ryan Stasik. I found myself intrigued at the changing sound of the band as a whole, though I think the most influential moments probably came from some of their 1994 show experiences where there seemed to be absolutely no rules about what might happen. I love the feeling of having "no rules" and I think that has carried into the attitude Umphrey's McGee takes into every show. We definitely took that cue and have developed an audience that actively wants us to take risks every night. Throughout all of those performances I found myself completely locked in to whatever Page was doing, studying & experiencing at the same time.

What's your favorite keyboard part(s) to a Phish song?

This is a tough one for me, so I'm going to pick two segments. First, a composed section - I love the complexity of the "chase" segment from "Reba" where Trey & Page are essentially mimicking each other in a sort of modern fugue. There's a lot of dexterity & harmonic complexity all in these quick, technically challenging passages. And then the way those release to the groove over which Trey solos is magnificent.

But the first real head turning moment for me was listening to the piano solo in "Rift" - I couldn't figure out what kind of music this was - was it rock, bluegrass or some new hybrid of music I hadn't heard before. I didn't know the answer to that question, but the chord changes and completely unique song structure immediately blew my mind. And in the middle of it all was a very cool, fast and melodic piano solo.

Is there a technical aspect or particular skillset or use of a particular instrument of McConnell's playing that you particularly appreciate?

I grew up studying classical piano so Page's piano playing really hit me most at first. I was astounded by the more composed, technical aspects of his playing. As I discovered more of the band's improvisation, I found myself listening to how he complemented Trey's leads & Mike's bass lines and filled in all of the harmonic gaps. With a four-piece band, there is a lot of room to use secondary chord voicings, different colorings and different harmonies. So that part was huge for me, especially later on as Umphrey's was starting, I realized that I could use a lot of what I learned with my music theory degree & apply it to rock n roll. Now that Umphrey's is a six-piece band, that part is even more relevant as there is so much going on harmonically that I really have to be on top of what's happening and make decisions quickly. I think a lot of that mode of thinking for me started as I went deeper into the Phish wormhole, particularly delving into what someone could do with a wide palette of sounds on the keyboard.

What separates or differentiates Page from other keyboardists in rock?

Much like some of my other favorite players (e.g. Herbie Hancock, Chuck Leavell & Keith Jarrett) Page has the ultimate combination of rhythmic precision & melodic/harmonic instinct. It's best summed up by the feeling of "he plays all of the right notes at the right time." It's something that takes people a lifetime to develop as players and Page obviously put in a lot of work at a young age to hone those skills. He's soulful, full of melody and extremely accurate - you rarely hear obvious mistakes and that is probably the most impressive part when you consider that he is in a band that plays extremely challenging composed material along with off the cuff improvisation.

Can you share a Happy Birthday message to Page?

Happy 50th Page - you've influenced and inspired a lot of people with your music, musicians and non-musicians alike. The world is a better place because of your music. Thank you.


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