Trey Anastasio: Plasma (Elektra)

Anastasio has fleshed out the horn section’s role and added extra sections with more nuances in tone, energy, and volume.

In the end, it’s all about “Inner Tube,” a studio/concert hybrid composition that changes pace frenetically over 22 minutes. Phish honcho Trey Anastasio and his nine-piece orchestra have thrown together a crazy enough bouillabaisse in “Inner Tube” to beat Medeski Martin and Wood at their own jazz-funk-electronica game.

If it weren’t stashed near the end of the second disc of the double-live release Plasma, “Inner Tube” might have even had the chance to preach to someone other than the jam-band choir. Since the whole point of Plasma is to hit you with the highlights of Anastasio’s solo work in 2002—the other tracks come from various concert and soundcheck performances—“Inner Tube” really cuts to the chase in one sense with its cut-and-pasted style, though in the more literal sense, it takes over 20 minutes to cut to the chase.

While Phish has done well simply to maintain their exploratory mojo since their hiatus ended in December, Anastasio’s solo progress has richly rewarded anyone who’s been paying attention. Compare the PlasmaPlasma is really just a benchmark in the ongoing development of the sounds in Anastasio’s head. version of the Cuban-boppy “Mozambique” to one from just a year earlier: Anastasio has fleshed out the horn section’s role and added extra sections with more nuances in tone, energy, and volume.

The biggest drawback to Plasma is also the most obvious: there’s no visual aspect. Anastasio is a joy to watch onstage, using all kinds of sign language to direct his players (a keyboardist, percussionist, drummer, bassist, and five horn blowers). It’s one thing to listen to the lengthy jam in “Night Speaks to a Woman” and dismiss it as self-indulgent noodling, but it’s something else to realize that virtually every twist and turn comes on the spur of the moment from Anastasio’s direction. That’s self-indulgence on a whole ’nother level, but infinitely more engrossing, too.

As with all worthwhile works of improvisation, there are the inevitable missteps: “First Tube” and “Sand” pale in comparison to their Phish incarnations, and no matter what your fancy, Anastasio’s spotlight-hogging guitar style can wear thin after two hours. That’s why the instrumental arrangements of Bob Marley’s “Small Axe” and Phish’s “Magilla” make Plasma a winner by themselves: they’re short and understated, a most welcome change of pace. When Anastasio does take his hands off the guitar for even a few moments, the focus shifts to his songwriting and compositional skills. That shift is becoming more and more welcome as the years go by.

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