Keyboardist Tom Constanten
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Col. Bruce Hampton, Jennifer Hartswick, Karl Denson, Reed Mathis, Adam Deitch and many more.
I reach Tom Constanten on the road in Colorado and it turns out we need to postpone our interview by an hour or two. We sort out a time and a call-back, and does it sound good?
“Perfection on a plate,” says the 71-year-old musician, and somehow a phrase like that is more or less what you’d think he’d say.
The owly “TC,” as he’s popularly known, famously spent 1968 to 1970 playing keys during one of the seminal periods of the Grateful Dead, and we discussed that association in the context of this 50th anniversary year and also in his current tour as a member of Jazz Is Dead.
Along with TC on keyboards, this incarnation of the rebooted band features an all- aces lineup of guitarist Jeff Pevar, keyboardist Chris Smith, drummer Rod Morgenstein and founding bassist Alphonso Johnson. The players have changed from version to version since Jazz Is Dead’s mid-1990s inception, but the M.O. is the same: an improvisational collective that doesn’t so much re-interpret Dead tunes as use them as playgrounds – or maybe, “aquariums” is a more appropriate metaphor.
TC likes metaphors. He graced us with a few during the course of a freewheeling chat.
JAMBASE: The Jazz is Dead tour is off and running. How it’s going?
TC: This is absolutely wonderful. I’ve never toured with a band where everyone is so excellent, and we all get along so excellently. Most tours I go on, we get on a roll and it gets better and better. I’m sure this one will be like that – it’s totally wonderful. I love working out this material in a different way. I burned to a crisp on doing it the old way – that will happen after 40 years of playing it – but this lets us pick up on musical conversions in the music and respond as we’re playing it.
JAMBASE: Why is this format so appealing to you? It’s inclined toward improvisation? It’s messing with the song structures?
TC: All of the above. When you’re surrounded by such excellent musicians you create this web of connectivity where things just happen. Every night is different. We find interesting places in the music which are totally new but somehow we know how to work in them.
JAMBASE: How did you connect with this group of players?
TC: These were musicians I’ve worked with before, especially Chris Smith and Jeff Pevar. And working with Rod and Alphonso is a revelation and a wonder. This has really reenergized my batteries.
JAMBASE: So you’ve played with Jeff and Chris a lot before?
TC: I played with them with Jefferson Starship. That’s been a lot of fun. I’ve probably done more shows with them than I did with that other band I was in.
JAMBASE: Tom it’s of course “that other band” you were in whose music Jazz is Dead works from and to which you’re still most closely associated. So, kind of an open-ended question: What does the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead mean to you?
TC: As far as I’m concerned, the 1960s phenomenon created an extended family that the Dead were near to or at the center of, but it went beyond them. And I’ve played with so many included in that, such as Jefferson Starship or Big Brother & The Holding Company or Quicksilver Messenger Service or Country Joe & The Fish. It’s all part of that family.
You know, and I realized this when I met Vince Welnick, when you’re doing this you meet others and there are some things we just don’t have to explain to each other. People have these assumptions about how things are in these groups. We don’t have that baggage among us. It’s a different viewpoint you have from in the band than when you’re sitting in the balcony watching the band. That’s one of the first things I learned playing concert music. When you get into the group, you throw those assumptions out the window. You’re playing a different game.
JAMBASE: What are the most common assumptions people make that you’ve spent time trying to correct?
TC: I’ve given up trying to correct them. It’s worse for the guys who are in the core four [Grateful Dead], because people make so many assumptions that are so totally incorrect. Let me sum it up in one sentence: Jerry Garcia said, “It’s not a privilege to be in the Grateful Dead.” Unless you’ve been in it, you can’t really wrap your head around that. You can see how wonderful it is, without seeing the sawdust backstage that you have to deal with.
JAMBASE: Are you in contact with any of the core four?
TC: I have seen them maybe as much as half a dozen times in the last 20 years. It’s rare, but it’s totally friendly when we do. I bear them no rancor and I sense they bear me no ill will, it’s just not something that happens. Other parts of the family have caught me. I’m not in a freefall, I feel like I’m well taken care of.
JAMBASE: What else are you working on these days?
TC: I’ve been doing solo recitals, where I play this music from the 1960s and go all the way back to Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Bach. Everyone likes to bring to bear everything they’ve experienced and I’ve been able to learn and experience a lot.
I also have an improvisatory duo called Dose Hermanos – that’s not “dos” as in the number two but “dose” as in the measurement of medication – with Bob Bralove. We get close to 100 percent improvisation in that. We weren’t sure about it, but we found with audiences that the further out we got the better they liked it. We jump in at the deep end of the pool. I jumped into the deep end of the pool at the age of 17 and had the good fortune to find my way. Bob and I have a residency in Sacramento in November. We’ve been playing lately and we’ll be playing some more.
JAMBASE: Why do you and Bob work so well together?
TC: We’ve been doing this for so long we have connections we’ve made that are intuitive. I would call them sub-verbal – they can’t be put into words. I’ll go back to the point I made about not having to explain certain things. We don’t have to explain them because we’ve been there, and we can turn on a dime. Part of the fun is that we are coherent but not congruent – there are differences between us and we both have an incredible repository. There’s reduction and awareness that we bring to the situation before we start, and then it’s a slightly different trajectory. We complement one another. Even our arguments are entertaining.
JAMBASE: Performing nearly 100 percent improvisation, especially in a duo format where you share the energy on the stage with one other person, means a certain level of trust in that person. You’ve played with a lot of people, so is the rest up to chemistry that allows you and Bob to do that in such a way that you couldn’t with others, even folks who are technically accomplished and strong improvisational players?
TC: Go back to the swimming pool metaphor. You have to get into the pool before you can see if it works. Maybe you have a long time good old friend and you respect him and admire what he can do, and yet, somehow it just doesn’t work. That’s something that transcends my understanding. I’m grateful the lightning strikes when it does. I’m still not quite sure how it works yet. I know it works, but I don’t know how it works. But it was the same story with the Grateful Dead, we weren’t sure what we were doing.
JAMBASE: Do you reflect on what it would have been like to stay with the Grateful Dead past when you did in the early 70s?
TC: If I were entertaining thoughts or whims like that, I’d be paralyzed and not alive anymore. There are so many things to reflect on other than that one. I’m sure all of us have things we look back on. We have no control over it anyway. And secondly, the only possibly result of thinking like that is bringing yourself down. You never know.
JAMBASE: Are your memories from your time in the Dead largely positive?
TC: Oh yes. Definitely mostly positive memories, and like I was saying, if I want to think about the negative memories – and not just the ones with the Grateful Dead, I have more of those with other bands – I remind myself not to dwell on it because it has no useful purpose. It definitely doesn’t elevate me.
Occasionally you have to remind yourself of the old story about the guy who was marooned on a desert island, made the best of it, built a house and then the house burned down and everything he lived for was up in smoke and he was crying and pounding the sand, and then he looks up and there’s a pair of boots and it’s a Navy officer who says, “We saw your signal fire.” The point is that what you see as possibly a devastating catastrophe could be your salvation. I ride the waves as they come. We all have our destiny. Enjoy the ride.
JAMBASE: Returning to Jazz Is Dead, does this group require a lot of rehearsal?
TC: The freedom to improvise at the level we do comes from being sure of where you’re at and what you’re doing, so there is rehearsal. You need to establish the ground rules of each piece. I find this so especially refreshing because this new approach means that everything I used to do [in these songs] doesn’t work. I have to find new paths.
JAMBASE: Can you give an example of a song where this has happened?
TC: We did a “Dark Star” last night in Boulder and the approach was totally different than what I had done before. We started out with the Pigpen motif that he came up with on the organ [TC hums the motif]. We built a texture out of that and stayed on that before we even went into the “Dark Star” melody.
It’s like driving into your own hometown in a different direction … I’m giving you a lot of metaphors.
JAMBASE: No, no, I’m with you.
TC: It’s like driving into the town and you see it totally differently. It’s the same town, but it’s a totally new view. I’ve played “Dark Star” so many times I know where the pebbles are at the bottom of the creek in that hometown. But this is different. It’s the best combination of knowledge and serendipity.
JAMBASE: Why was this the year to put Jazz Is Dead back together?
TC: I have no idea at all. I’m a little guppy in a big ocean. The waves come. I enjoy it. So much is happening here that’s bigger than all of us. This is something we realized in the 60s – you just could not open your brain wide enough to take it all in. I have people I have known for 50 years and I’m just finding out things about them now. The lights go on again, and they’re bright.
JAMBASE: Will there be more Jazz Is Dead shows?
TC: We have several other tours planned and right now we’re lining up the booking. A lot, I would assume, depends on how this tour does. But I am optimistic. So far the crowds have been appreciative. People say things that make me feel good. I know it has to lead to something. I know we have some concerts coming in Florida in February and I think there’s talk about crossing an ocean – I don’t know which one, but I’ve crossed some of them before.
JAMBASE: Can I ask you to share a favorite sit-in story, either you with someone else’s group or someone coming up to join a group you were performing in?
TC: I can think of several. Being invited by Country Joe McDonald onstage was truly special, because I had admired him since the early 60s. People talk to me about albums I’ve been on that they built a connection to when they were tripped out. [Country Joe’s] music is what I was listening to – those albums speak to me on that same intimate and personal level. So getting to go behind the curtain and see how he brings that to life was special. He’s such a witty and humorous and brilliant person – a fine man. Being around him was totally wonderful and getting to appear with him onstage was something.
JAMBASE: Do you keep up at all with current pop music, rock or otherwise?
TC: It’s funny. I had this discussion recently with [former Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist] Stu Cook. We were bemoaning the fact about how little recreational music we listen to. Almost all of the listening I do is job related, or so far off the beaten track that it doesn’t apply, and I mean Renaissance choral music, or deep drumming music from Africa. But I’ve run into bands on tour, some of whom have opened for bands I’m in, and I’m so amazed and encouraged that there’s so much good music going on.
JAMBASE: Any bands you’d call out specifically?
TC: I’m scared to give you a name because then you and your readers will probably say they’re old hat. It’s hard to keep up. But Phish is an example. I got to meet and hang out with them. They do things other bands don’t do. They have a dynamic range and a variety of textures and they have a wonderful sarcastic wit that really appeals to me.
JAMBASE: When did you meet them?
TC: It was at a festival at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in California. I was there and I was backstage and one thing led to another. I met Mike and he introduced me to Trey and Page. I still haven’t met Fish. They talked with me about a couple of the things they do. It was in the 90s – it was a bit ago. But it was all very friendly.
JAMBASE: Tom it’s an honor to talk with you and inspiring to hear about riding the waves. And I have to say I’ve really enjoyed the metaphors.
TC: Next time we will do similes.