Jan. 5, 2008 -- Asking Page McConnell to name his favorite songs is as difficult as making him choose which of the 88 notes of the piano keyboard he plays he likes the most.
Not only does he have difficulty choosing particular songs by a particular artist, the musician, whose improvisational wizardry with the jam band Phish earned him the sobriquet "Chairman of the Boards," is vexed if asked to decide which performance of a particular song he likes the best.
Still, when it comes to his work, McConnell is willing to say he's partial to the cut "Maid Marian" from his own eponymous solo album released this year.
"Favorites? Boy, there's so many," McConnell laughed, when asked to produce a list of must-listen-to songs.
As for the 60's and 70's iconic jam band -- the Grateful Dead -- McConnell explains, "when I would see them in concert, it would be a different song every night that would be my favorite of the evening. It wasn't any one song in particular that kept me coming back."
Likewise, it isn't any one song that kept devoted fans of Phish following the band from venue to venue, but rather the promise that McConnell and his band mates would weave a new musical tapestry at each concert, improvising new and different riffs on each song.
Improvisation is a style of music McConnell has embraced, studied and practiced for most of his life.
Born in Philadelphia in 1963 into a "musical family" of five, McConnell grew up in New Jersey where his doctor father Jack worked for the McNeil Pharmaceutical Co. (later Johnson & Johnson) and helped develop Tylenol. As a young doctor, Jack McConnell lived in New Orleans and became a devotee of Dixieland Jazz, which was the first musical genre Page McConnell remembers influencing him deeply from an early age.
It is a style of music McConnell still loves today and earned Louis Armstrong's "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?" a spot at the top of McConnell's own "Nightline" Playlilst. In fact, near the end of Phish's final tour in 2004, Jack McConnell joined his son onstage for a rocking performance of the Dixieland classic, "Bill Bailey."
McConnell remembers his childhood -- he has an older brother and younger sister -- as almost like a Norman "Rockwell painting. We went to church. I sang in the choir for years. A nice, loving household with a dog, a cat and always a lot of music around." They all played instruments, each taking turns at the piano. "My dad also plays a little banjo and guitar, my mom plays the mandolin. So there was always music in the house."
At four, Page first began learning piano alongside his older brother, and a bit of sibling rivalry only encouraged the boys to practice more than just a little bit. Though the first record McConnell recalls buying was the Archies' pop sensation, "Sugar, Sugar," it was rock-and-roll that he began trying to imitate and adapt for the piano as a middle school student.
"I listened to rock, and so that was what I was trying to play on the piano," he said. "And most of the time, I was playing by myself. I didn't have bands that I was playing with growing up, so I learned to try to adapt and play these songs that were guitar songs on the piano, and sing them."
While many standards of the rock-and-roll 60s and 70s were known for their electrified guitar licks, Elton John's hard-driving keyboards captured young Page's ear in an important and unexpected way, at a local movie theater.
Page had listened to, admired and learned to play many of Elton John's hits of the day -- "Rocket Man," "Levon," "Tiny Dancer" -- and then, "I learned the song 'Amoreena,' which I think I heard for the first time when I saw 'Dog Day Afternoon.'"
The song covers the opening credits of the Oscar-winning film starring Al Pacino. McConnell calls "Amoreena" one of Elton John's "great songs. A really pretty and fun song to play. You never know where your influences are going to come from, or where you're going to find your inspiration."
Page includes the Beatles' "Lady Madonna" and the Who's "Gettin' in Tune," and the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" on his personal playlist. "I was probably most influenced by the music my brother was listening to as I was growing up," Page recalls. "He was a big Beatles fan and a big Stones fan, and eventually a fan of the Grateful Dead, and all these things sort of rubbed off on me and got passed down."
McConnell also found inspiration in the guitar legend Jimi Hendrix's "Axis: Bold as Love" album; the late, great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis' tribute to boxer Jack Johnson, "In a Silent Way;" and the truly original work of Frank Zappa, whose "Peaches en Regalia" should be included on any McConnell playlist.
As he grew as a rocker, Page says he was also influenced by the Southern rock sounds of the Allman Brothers' Band and, of course, the Grateful Dead, whose improvisational style was later adopted and adapted to the singular sound of Phish, which McConnell joined in 1984 when he moved to Vermont to attend Goddard College.
Among the early songs in the band's repertoire was a cover of the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post." But it is the Allman Brothers' "Jessica" that gets a spot on McConnell's playlist. "Growing up, the song 'Jessica' was … one of the first songs I learned of theirs. That had a big influence on me."
Years later, McConnell went to see the Allman Brothers and after Greg Allman took ill, McConnell sat in on his behalf for the last four or five songs, "which was kind of a thrill." When Page formed his own project band Vida Blue in 2001, it included Allman Brothers' Band bassist Oteil Burbridge and drummer Russell Batiste of the Meters.
McConnell is clearly fond of his two decades of work with Phish, which, though it started as a college bar band, evolved into one of the iconic jam bands of the last quarter-century. "We incorporated so many different styles of music into our improvisation," he says. "We studied them and then tried to digest them and let them come out in their own natural way. We all had slightly different tastes and we all appreciated each other's music."
In the band's early years, the musicians (McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon, drummer Jon Fishman and guitar wonder Trey Anastasio) played mostly covers of songs that blended jazz, country, bluegrass and rock. As the band developed and the members wrote more songs, there were many nights "where we wouldn't play any covers and just played original music," McConnell says. "Everybody brought something different and everybody always had suggestions of songs that we would try." When pressed, McConnell will list Phish's "You Enjoy Myself" as his favorite band song and a sure listing for his own personal playlist.
While Phish and its devoted fan base pioneered distribution on the Internet that now seems revolutionary in an era of downloads, it didn't start that way. When the band started in the early 1980s, the Internet was in its infancy. "Our focus at that point was really to be a live touring band," McConnell explains. "Curiously, it's that business model which is one of the few which works for a band today. If you can play live and support yourself, it's one of the few ways you're going to actually get paid in this business these days."
As the band and its popularity grew, the Internet was also growing exponentially. The band's fans began trading recordings of live performances and formed a community online. "That allowed us to do the things that we did and be pioneering in the digital space that we were with distribution and feeds," McConnell says. "I really have to credit the fans for laying the groundwork for us to be able to make all those things happen."
Even before Phish disbanded after a series of farewell concerts in 2004, McConnell showed his versatility as a musician, leading his own projects like Vida Blue and providing a keyboard constancy for Jack Black's Tenacious D.
McConnell's solo album is a big label release: Sony/BMG-Legacy Recordings. It showcases his personal style with gentle vocals and the kind of original compositions that inhabit a listener's memory. The album is the product of rigorous and solitary work: just Page McConnell, a piano and a tape recorder. But it also echoes with the playlist sounds of Dixieland, bluegrass and rock.
Page McConnell's Playlist
Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? LOUIS ARMSTRONG
Amoreena ELTON JOHN
Lady Madonna THE BEATLES
Getting In Tune THE WHO
Bold As Love JIMI HENDRIX
Jessica THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND
You Enjoy Myself PHISH