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.

Jason Crosby
God Street Wine, Assembly of Dust

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

I heard Page and Phish for the first time while spending a year at Kent School in 1990. Everyone around campus was playing the Lawn Boy record and talking about the band. At this point in my life I had only played and performed classical music, so the band was life changing for me.

What's been Page's influence on you?

I was influenced by Page's ability to navigate between Trey's specific parts written for him and the completely free moments. There are not a lot of keyboardists that can read notation well and also let go and play anything that's going on around them, and seeing Page do this was influential and inspiring.

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

I love Page's playing on "Maze" off of Rift. But there are many moments I could choose from.

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

As long as I've been seeing Phish and Page, it's always been B3, Piano, Rhodes and vintage synths. Very little digital keyboards, if any. I dig that.

What separates or differentiates Page from other keyboardists in rock?

Tens of thousands of fans in the audience? Haha. Serious answer: What differentiates Page from other fellow keyboard players in rock is that he has this diverse musical background in which he can play all styles, while also being blessed to be with one of the most adventurous groups in which he can let his playing stretch out.

Can you share a Happy Birthday message to Page?

Happy Birthday Page! Thanks for being such a great influence on me and so many other musicians! Here's to your next 50 years being as great as the first.

Marco Benevento

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

I remember being real stoned and listening to Divided Sky in 1991 at a friend's house in New Jersey and feeling like I was melting into the chair because of Page's organ sound, more specifically it was the sound of the lower baffle of his Leslie that seemed to move my brain and body around the most. It felt as though I was half asleep floating through a dimly lit pink fog-filled hallway that was cotton candy scented.

What's been Page's influence on you?

We've played together here and there, we've recorded a little bit together, we've had some espresso together, we even shared a bike taxi in New Orleans, so I got a little Page in my life all the time. I really enjoy playing music with him. Last time we played at his studio together we were both at some old keyboards making crazy electronic music sounds and afterwards I told him that it felt like a meditation. He's real subtle and can support every musical idea you may throw into a improvisation very graciously.

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

Man - I still haven't heard this yet. But maybe you guys can help. The very first time I saw Phish was at the Broome County Arena in Binghamton, NY in 1994 [ed. note - 4/9/94]. They opened with "Magilla" and did it in a very different way it had such a different feel than the record version. I think that melody is real catchy. Equally as catchy is his tune "Cars, Trucks and Buses" - I feel like that organ part is real cool too.

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

I appreciated his timing. He seems to comp for the band in the right places and never seems to over do it. My favorite would definitely be his piano playing.

What separates or differentiates Page from other keyboardists in rock?

His clarity. He is real great at coming up with such a memorable keyboard part for a song.

Can you share a Happy Birthday message to Page?

Come over for some meatballs!!!!

Matt McDonald
Perpetual Groove, Ghost Owl

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

I was introduced to Phish by my buddy, Justin Davis, in college. I had heard of Phish, but really hadn't paid much mind to them. Justin took me to my first show and that pretty much changed everything in my courses and career. It was a free show at the Band Shell at the University of Florida [ed. note - 10/23/94]. Being that guitar was my major at that time, of course I was drawn to Trey, but it was the way Page played with Trey that really grabbed my attention. That was the most impressive part of the experience for me. The patient approach that Page took, especially in jams, is what grabbed me. Like most, I had never heard a band like that, one that really moved as a unit.

What's been Page's influence on you?

Page talked in Bittersweet Motel about having the patience on stage during sections of improvisation to let the group get there "together." That lesson has always stuck with me.

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

It's "Cars, Trucks and Buses" - just so fresh, so funky and they captured that even on the album version. Good and fun songwriting on that one.

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

It goes back to Page's unbelievable taste and patience. He's never worried about taking his "solo" or having his moment out front. He really compliments Trey and Mike melodically and rhythmically helps drive the train with Fishman. Being the support or the glue, is much more difficult than most people realize.

What separates or differentiates Page from other keyboardists in rock?

I think Page's proficient understanding of several different styles of music makes him shine and stand out from others. Especially his ability to tap into all of those styles through the course of an evening. Whether a latin rhythm, jazz progression or full-on rock organ, Page touches on it all. Not many players can or will do that.

Can you share a Happy Birthday message to Page?

Happy Birthday Page! Now go make another solo album!


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