Jason Crosby is a musician’s musician. His perfect pitch was discovered when he picked up his first violin at 2 years old. Immersing himself in classical music, he became a professional piano player at a young age, and would go on to learn guitar, viola, French horn, and trumpet, touring with the Long Island Youth Orchestra to China, Russia, Australia, and Cuba. He soon expanded his musical horizons from Classical to Jazz, Funk, Rock, and Latin, before becoming a fixture in the Jam Band scene playing with Susan Tedeschi Band and Robert Randolph and the Family Band, then later The Allman Brothers, members of The Grateful Dead, and the Meters. Over the past few years, he has toured with Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Pete Seeger, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Dave Matthews, and Jackie Greene, in addition to sharing the stage with BB King and the Rolling Stones. Along with his impressive touring resume, Jason has played on over 40 recorded albums.
In 2009, Crosby stepped away from his gig as a highly sought after sideman to get off the road and decompress. It was a risky move to walk away from the safety and security of his career as one of music’s most in-demand sidemen, but Crosby’s decision to experience a different kind of life helped plant the seeds that now, nearly a decade later, have blossomed into his exceptionally beautiful debut album, ‘Cryptologic.’ The project began to take flight when Crosby met Blue Rose Music founder Joe Poletto, it felt like a sign from the universe that the time had arrived to take the plunge and record this long-awaited album. Crosby headed into the studio with producer/engineer Karl Derfler (Tom Waits, Dave Matthews) for two whirlwind sessions, each capturing a different side of his musical personality. The first, conducted in the spring of 2016, featured Crosby playing roughly a dozen different instruments, deliberately crafting each song from the ground up by himself with an ambient, compellingly visual quality. The second session, a more raw and reckless affair that went down just a few months later, tapped into the wild and collaborative spirit of rock and roll that’s always flowed through Crosby’s veins, as he captured a new batch of songs (co-written with Tim Bluhm) live in the studio with Golden State stalwarts The Mother Hips as his backing band. With the album, Crosby digs deep, painting vivid portraits of characters on the hunt for redemption and renewal. Richly cinematic and enchantingly playful, ‘Cryptologic’ reveals Crosby to be not only an unparalleled instrumentalist, but also a supremely talented songwriter.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Jason Crosby to discuss his life in music, his evolution as an artist and the making of his unique solo album, ‘Cryptologic,’ which will be released on September 29th, 2017 by Blue Rose Music.
You have built your life around music. How did the journey get started in the musical sense?
I started violin when I was 2 years old, shortly before my 3rd birthday, doing the Suzuki method with a 1/16th sized violin, group lessons, and whatnot. Then I started playing piano about 18 months later, when I was 4 years old. That is my first memory actually, being with my Mom and pulling up to my piano teacher’s house. I basically auditioned for my piano teacher, who was an amazing Russian woman named Tonya Lechtman. There is a big Russian community in Sea Cliff in Long Island where I grew up and she was well known as being a concert pianist that studied and taught at the Moscow Conservatory. I came highly recommended as a 4 year old! [laughs] I actually auditioned for her and she was my only piano teacher. She taught me for 13 years from the ages of 4 to 17.
What went into finding your creative voice as a young artist?
It took awhile. My childhood upbringing in music was mainly in classical. It wasn’t until after high school that I started to jam with people and play with others in something other than a large orchestra or chamber music setting. I feel like I started coming into my own in my late teens and it has been an ongoing process ever since!
You mentioned the classical part of your musical upbringing, but who were some of the other influences you looked to early on?
Well, I my first concert was Pink Floyd in 1987! I discovered Pink Floyd and prog rock band’s like YES and RUSH through my older brothers. I think I first discovered those bands when I was around 11 or 12 years old. In 1990, I went to boarding school for one year and Blues Traveler came to our school and Phish came to a neighboring school. It was in ’90 that I discovered the scene that I’m now in! I remember the first God Street Wine show that I attended, which I think was Christmas of 1990, the evening of December 25th, 1990. I saw them at The Wetlands. I watched them and I thought, “Not only do I really want to do this, but I think I actually can!” I could hear what was going on and in my head I was participating! [laughs] I remember really having dreams about playing with God Street Wine. I remember the following year, my senior year in high school, I would have dreams about playing with them! The dream would go that I was in my middle school auditorium watching God Street Wine and towards the end, they would say, “Ok, now we’re going to call up Jason Crosby and he’s going to play a couple of songs with us!” Then I would daydream about it again in class! [laughs] I would write down the different names of their songs and I had a bunch of cassette bootlegs. Ironically, I ended up playing with God Street Wine in their latter day versions and it was them who brought me to California and gave me the intro to Bob [Weir] and Phil [Lesh]. I guess dreams do come true in a literal sense! [laughs]
You’ve played with some amazing musicians through the years. Who has had the biggest influence on you creatively?
There has been a big influence from the Southeastern scene. There are guys like Oteil [Burbridge], The Aquarium Rescue Unit, and all the people Colonel Bruce [Hampton] brought together. I’m actually here in Atlanta now rehearing with Jimmy Herring and The Invisible Whip for our upcoming tour with John McLaughlin. I would say that Oteil was the first one to really influence me in my playing and getting deeper both harmonically and rhythmically. He was the first person to say, “Hey, man! You should do a solo record!” He really pushed me to do my own thing, so I have to give a lot of the credit to Oteil. It’s amazing that we are both doing The Grateful Dead gigs. Oteil called me a couple of Halloween’s ago when Dead and Company was playing at The Garden and I was playing with Phil. I guess there was some article in the paper and he didn’t even realize I was on that particular gig. He was like, “Man, remember when we were in the band and now were are playing New York City with different members of The Grateful Dead on the same night!” [laughs] The guys down here really influenced me a lot in my formative years and my 20s. Obviously, the crew in California has been a big influence on me in the last 5 years as well.
Let’s talk about your new record, ‘Cryptologic.’ What got the ball rolling on this project?
I had a batch of tunes which I wrote in my last years in New York and upon moving to California. I always had a concept of making a record where I played most of the instruments and created a soundscape for these songs using different instruments than just the standard rock band setup. It never came to fruition in the first couple of years I was in California because I was busy establishing myself in my career as a sideman. I met Joe Poletto, who is from Blue Rose Music, which is an artist collective out of Sonoma, California. Blue Rose Music is also a charity foundation that gives money to underprivileged kids for scholarships for pre-school. I was doing these Blue Rose events that he would have, long before he had a label. He and I became friends and he asked me about what else I had outside of the sideman world, so I played him some tunes. He was the real encouragement in making this happen. He gave me the support, time and connections to make it all happen. He introduced me to Karl Derfler, who produced the record. Karl is amazing and he has worked with Tom Waits and Dave Matthews. He truly is fantastic! I really have to give credit to Blue Rose for making the record come to fruition. What we ended up doing was using half the tunes from the batch that I had and then I wrote another 5 or 6 tunes. Four of those were with Tim Bluhm and we recorded those with The Mother Hips as the band. The record is kind of half of what my original vision was and then half of The Mother Hips, which really turned out to be the perfect way to do it. I think it blends nicely!
Tell us a little about your songwriting process for the record. How did it all come together?
Surprisingly, for some, I don’t write the songs on the piano. Other than “Final Step,” which I wrote on ukulele, everything was written on guitar. I’m not the greatest guitar player but I can get around the acoustic guitar! [laughs] I think that is part of what inspires me to write, at least the musical part of it, in that I’m still exploring the instrument. I’m still trying to figure out the guitar. As I’m playing, I will find some sort of chord that is unique to me or something i think is cool. I will start there and then branch out. It’s been a useful tool for me. I think in the next writing batch I’m going to do, I’m going to force myself to write on the piano because I haven’t done it! [laughs] These songs start on guitar and from tune to tune, they had a different curve of how long they took to create. For example, “Final Step,” I wrote in Hawaii on the ukulele. The words and music were 99% complete within a night. It took a half hour or an hour to write it. It just came to me and I love songs like those but others took a little time to develop. The tunes with Tim were great! We did some duo gigs in Hawaii and did a little excursion to a beach house for 4 or 5 days. We just sat there with a couple of acoustics and brainstormed. We wrote 4 tunes, which we finished back in California. There was one riff in the song “Gambler’s Conceit,” which I had the riff for that and Tim said, “Man, that sounds like a Mother Hips tune!” I said, “Well, maybe we should get the Mother Hips to record it!” [laughs] He said, “Ya know what? We should just get them to record the whole batch!” Which was great! [laughs] For me, it was really cool to record with a band that is a band. I mean, you can get 4 of the greatest musicians in the world in a room but if they’ve never played together, there is something missing. There is something to playing with a group of guys who have rehearsed, gigged, recorded and played together for years and years. It’s a unit. I was really lucky to have them!
Which songs came easiest and which presented more of a challenge?
“Final Step” was probably the easiest to nail down, along with “One of Those Places,” which I had been playing live and was the oldest song of the batch. Other tunes like “Was I Ever There” and “Suffered A Fool,” which I wrote with Tim, got me a little bit out of my comfort zone, not only lyrically but with the range. “Gambler’s Conceit” was a challenge as well. I didn’t think that I could sing that high. Tim told me that I could! [laughs] I kept trying and then eventually I could! I worked on it and worked on it and between the vocal coaching and working with Tim and Karl, I increased my vocal range by a whole step! I’m very thankful for that!
How did you originally cross paths with The Mother Hips?
I met Tim first. He had a couple of bands. One was Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers and then there was Brokedown In Bakersfield. That was the first time I met Tim. Brokedown In Bakersfield was a combination of members of ALO, The Mother Hips and The Gramblers. I remember that night well. Tim and I were hanging out and talking. We said, “We need to stay connected.” And we did! For the first year or so, I would see Tim, Greg and the guys and say, “Oh, Greg’s playing with Phil Lesh and Friends tonight…” or “Oh, Tim’s playing with Phil tonight…” Or “oh, I’m sitting in with The Gramblers tonight!” [laughs] It took a little bit before it was “Hey, you should come play with Mother Hips.” I guess it was maybe about a year ago when I started doing gigs with them. I did their Christmas run last year and I did the Hipnic this year and I’m going to do the Christmas run again. It’s been new but I love that band! I’m a fan! When I’m in my car or traveling, it’s definitely one of the top 5 or 10 groups that I’ll put on and listen to their entire catalog.
While this album is new to us, you’ve lived with it for a little while now. Looking back on the process, what were the biggest challenges you faced?
For me, the biggest challenge on this record was singing. I did two earlier instrumental records, so I had experience making records, experience writing songs and experience writing songs with lyrics. The second solo record I made had Susan Tedeschi and other guest singers on it but this new record was basically my debut of writing, singing and performing all of these different instruments. I think the biggest challenge was getting a vocal that I really liked and one that Karl liked! [laughs] I was up for the challenge! I saw a vocal coach for a little bit and did the reps. Being around great singers like Tim and Greg from The Mother Hips, Jackie Greene and Elliott Peck, who sings harmonies on it, really helped get me to the point where I was happy with the vocal.
Stanley Mouse did the album artwork for the record. How did that come about and what is the significance of the title of the album?
Stanley is awesome! I’ve known him since I’ve moved to California. He is obviously a man around the scene and has done a lot of artwork for the various artists I’ve worked with like Jackie Greene, Moonalice and others. Stanley has an office and showroom in Sonoma County, not far from the Blue Rose office. Joe and Stanley became friends and when I would meet with Joe, we would go visit Stanley and hang out. That went on for awhile before we made this record. He was the obvious choice to call upon for the album artwork. It was tough deciding what artwork to choose because everything he sent me was just brilliant! It’s very appropriate for the music, I think. I love Stanley! As far as the album title, “Cryptologic,” it came from the song “Was I Ever There.” That was one of the tunes I wrote with Tim in Hawaii. It doesn’t have much of a literal meaning but “Cryptologic” comes from there. It’s about some sort of psychedelic sea captain who’s trapped in the 4th dimension. [laughs] Out of all of the songs, I think it has the most imagery in a trippy sense. It started with Tim and I wanting to write a shuffle. We were messing around with these shuffle grooves and we didn’t have any lyrics yet. Tim was staring out at the Pacific Ocean and said, “I’ve been thinking about this line — When the light is right and I squint my eyes, I can almost get there. I remember the half-sun fog and the Cryptologic’s Captain’s Log.” That is pretty much where we started, the very first two lines. It was like, “Yeah! Ok! That’s a new direction for this record!” [laughs] I really like that song, so it was a good tune to pull from to get the album title!
You are a guy who has made a living from collaborating. What do you consider the keys to a fruitful collaboration?
I think it starts with being good people. That’s the key for me. Generally, when I get nervous it’s when I play with somebody for the first time. I’m not worrying about my playing or their playing. It’s more about what the vibe is like. Are we like-minded individuals? Are we going to get along when we’re not playing? The vibe to me is the most important thing! The key to collaboration is to collaborate with people that you like and truly vibe with. Luckily, I have a solid crew of people who are solid people. That to me is the key!
And that’s a beautiful thing! Where do you see yourself headed musically in the future?
In the immediate future, we’re going to put this record out and I’m going to do some shows. We sold out Terrapin Crossroads for the release on Friday, which is really exciting. We are also doing the Mill Valley Block Party on Sunday, which is always a great event. Blue Rose has a show where I’m playing in the round with Steve Earle, Joan Osborne, Anders Osborne, Steve Forbert and Jackie Greene. That is a thrill! Then I’ve got some dates with Phil Lesh and then the John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring tour! Of course, as I mentioned, we also have The Mother Hips Christmas shows and then New Year’s with Phil. That takes me through the rest of the year. Next year, I would expect a lot of stuff with Blue Rose. They’ve signed Jackie Greene and The Mother Hips. I’m one of their artists but I’m also a staff musician as well, where I’m playing on all of the records of the label’s artists. We will probably go out and tour on that as well! With that said, I hope to see me opening for Jackie, and Jackie and The Hips playing together and me opening those shows and playing with them. I would expect to see a lot of collaboration between the Blue Rose artists in 2018!
You’ve come a long way since your early years. How do you view your evolution as an artist?
My career has been so different as it has gone along. It’s been different styles of music that I’ve played and different instruments with the various bands. I’m here at my brother’s house right now and he just showed me a VHS copy of me playing on “The View” with The Blind Boys of Alabama. It transported me back a decade watching this with him right before I called you! [laughs] I feel like I’ve had this evolution but I have rarely focused on one thing for very long. I’m dedicated but I spent 5 years with Robert Randolph, a few years with The Blind Boys of Alabama and 4 years with Susan Tedeschi. Each time my roles would be different. One would be a B3 heavy gig, one would be a piano heavy gig or violin. With the John McLaughlin music, I’m shedding a lot of violin and it’s more in the jazz world. I feel like I’ve evolved as a whole. By that I mean my career arc and timeline has made me who I am. I’ve got a lot going on! [laughs]
You definitely serve as a big inspiration. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
It goes back to what I said about collaboration. My advice is to be cool, to be open to playing with people you might not expect yourself having a chance to play with, doing it and being cool and respectful about it. You also have to be prepared! [laughs] I practiced a lot when I was a kid and I’ve been playing and working as a musician for the last 25 years. My practicing level has gone down along the way. My attitude was always, “Well, I practice on stage and in rehearsals.” Over the last year, I’ve really shifted my focus back to practicing and getting my craft together. It has really yielded some amazing results. So, I think a great lesson you can take away from my experience is that you are never too old to keep practicing and working!
Thanks so much for your time today, Jason. We are excited to help spread the word on this awesome album. I can’t wait to see where the journey takes you next!
Thank you so much, Jason! I appreciate the time!
Follow the continuing adventures of Jason Crosby via his official website at www.jasoncrosby.net. Connect with him through social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. ‘Cryptologic’ is available everywhere on September 29th, 2017 – Click here to buy the album!