The Art Of The Sit In | Jeff Chimenti
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 Allie Kral, Al Schnier, Nikki Glaspie, and others.
It might surprise some to know that before keyboard ace Jeff Chimenti first joined Bob Weir’s RatDog in 1997, he didn’t know a single Grateful Dead song. Surprising because, some 17 years later, he’s one of the most ubiquitous musicians in the extended Grateful Dead scene post-Garcia – a crucial piece of RatDog, Furthur and several incarnations of Phil Lesh & Friends.
He’s praised for his dexterous style; catch Chimenti light up the keys in the midst of a high-flying “Eyes of the World,” for example, and know what it is to be dazzled. But much of what he does also comes from a jazz-world upbringing – a feel for dynamics, a distinct grasp of rhythm shifts, no matter how quick the twists and turns or malleable the jam and a real sense of adventure.
JamBase caught up with Chimenti just after his return from Furthur’s Paradise Waits excursion in Mexico. He respectfully declined questions about touchy subjects like RatDog’s current lineup and the future of Furthur, but obliged us with a good bit of feedback all the same.
JAMBASE: RatDog is back in action, though you guys played the Peach Festival last year. Was it tough to shake off the rust at that gig?
JEFF CHIMENTI: I didn’t feel it as being rusty, but merely adjusting to the different lineup as quickly as possible. I think we were all in the same boat and in my opinion, I think it came together quickly. It was a fun festival.
JAMBASE: You play in Furthur, you play in RatDog and you’ve also played with a bunch of Phil’s Friends lineups. Curious how would you describe the RatDog vibe, especially in relation to the other ensembles. It’s still primarily Dead music and yes, it’s different musicians, but RatDog seems to have a particular personality all its own, and having been playing with Bob for a long time, you can probably articulate what that is.
JC: That is difficult to describe, but I do agree that RatDog has its own personality. RatDog has been touted as jazzy from what I would hear from fans, and that’s not being negative in my eyes. Maybe that had more to do with the prior instrumentation on stage, but I don’t think it will lose that vibe going forward.
JAMBASE: If I recall you’d played keys since you were quite young, were formally trained, played around the Bay Area, worked with quite a few jazz ensembles and if I remember correctly, you joined RatDog through Dave Ellis. Did you have any background in Grateful Dead music before you joined?
JC: I honestly did not know Grateful Dead song one. In retrospect, half of me wishes I did having never seen them live, and I missed some amazing stuff, I’m sure. But I do feel that lacking that background was a key factor in my getting RatDog, as Bob preferred that, apparently.
The good thing was that as time progressed – and having to listen to Grateful Dead music to learn it – it was a wealth of great songs and was fresh for me from a listening standpoint. I had no idea how much great music they made prior to my own entrance into the scene. Wow! I am a fan now, though [laughs].
JAMBASE: What do you remember about meeting Bob and your early days with RatDog?
JC: The first day I was going to meet and play with Bob, there was a power outage, and we all sat and talked for four to five hours. Just as we were going to call it a day, the power came back on and we jammed a bit. That started a regimen of getting together a few days a week for a couple months before I actually started performing with RatDog. I had always felt welcomed and encouraged by the guys from the get-go and that was a nice feeling, honestly.
JAMBASE: You’ve sat in with many other bands and often collaborate. Tell me a favorite recent sit-in story, either you sitting in with a group or someone else sitting in with a band you were part of.
JC: I have been blessed all of my musical life to have had the chance to play with many iconic musicians. I hope that doesn’t end! Besides getting to sit and play next to the great Johnnie Johnson, who paved my way into RatDog essentially and what a treat that was, I think a show that stands out was getting to a soundcheck at Radio City [Music Hall] to find out that Elvis Costello and Diana Krall were joining us for the evening. That was a blast.
JAMBASE: What made Furthur a special band, to you?
JC: All of the Dead-related ensembles I have been a part of have had their special qualities. To speak on Furthur, I feel that it grew quickly and had a very intuitive and telepathic rise through the years. It seemed as even if we did not get together to play prior to tours, it would just pick up from where we last left it.
JAMBASE: How were the Paradise Waits shows you’ve just played?
JC: They were fantastic. All issues aside, it was a very positive thing and I personally kind of like these destination events. I can see these types of shows growing in popularity.
JAMBASE: What else are you working on right now outside of work with the Dead camps?
JC: I had gotten together with some old friends that I used to play with years ago, and we did a couple of sessions, essentially just to jam, at TRI Studios and they were recorded. My friends had an existing working trio called FOG, now with me added, and basically after hearing the tracks, we decided, what the hell, let’s put it out.
We just released the first recording date as FOG TRI Sessions Vol. 1. It’s very mellow, but a nice acoustic take of the songs chosen. It’s kind of one of those recordings where you pop on headphones, lay down and relax with it. I think it sounds good and hope that those who grab it feel the same.
I have also been involved for the last three years on an actual “musical” project co-writing the music along with the creator of the project, Miranda Jones, which is being produced by Bob as well. It is called “The Precipice,” and there’s good info at upontheprecipice.com. There’s too much detail to describe it here so it’s best to visit the site. That has kept me pretty busy while off tour, I have to say.
Jeff Chimenti has been part of some of the strongest nights of Grateful Dead music in the post-Jerry era. Here’s a cherrypicked list of fine performances from the past six months in which Chimenti shines in particular.
Furthur at Mann Music Center, Philadelphia, Pa., 7/13/2013
A fine example of Chimenti injecting himself and steering the band into some very creative jams, even when the entire band itself isn’t quite firing on all cylinders. An average Furthur show, an above-average night for Jeff.
RatDog at Peach Festival, Scranton, Pa., 8/16/2013
Calling it the best sampling so far of what the “new” RatDog sounds like isn’t fair considering that until the tour gets underway, it’s pretty much the only sampling (along with the following night at the same venue). But it sure sounded encouraging – and Chimenti is as ever in his element.
Furthur at Red Rocks, Morrison, Co., 9/22/2013
A top-flight Red Rocks run closed with the band spinning this jammy wonder. Set 2 has one showpiece after another, from “Let It Grow” to “Eyes” to “Dew” to “Help > Slip > Franklin’s,” and with old pal Branford Marsalis in the mix, it’s hotter still.
Phil Lesh & Friends at Terrapin Crossroads, San Rafael, Ca., 12/6/2013
Most of the Phil Lesh Quintet regrouped at TXR in early December, but instead of Rob Barraco, it was Chimenti – along with a third guitar voice in Neal Casal – rounding out the band. All four of these shows were meaty, mesmerizing affairs but we’re partial to the third night, which went heavy on psychedelic blues and a monster second stanza built around “Viola Lee Blues.”
Furthur at Hard Rock Hotel, Riviera Maya, Mexico, 1/22/2014
By all accounts Furthur was “on” throughout the Paradise Waits festival. Judging by a few recordings that have emerged, and also fan feedback, Night 3 was the money, with furious jamming throughout.