Photo: Jefferey Bowling / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

Pianist Holly Bowling Discusses Grateful Dead, Jazz, and Jam Bands

Classically trained pianist Holly Bowling is releasing her latest recording of Grateful Dead songs in a few weeks. PopMatters catches up with the virtuoso to discuss the intersection of jazz and rock with classical technique.

Seeking All That's Still Unsung
Holly Bowling
20 November 2020

There isn’t a logical explanation for the persistence—or, really, the swelling—of interest in music of the Grateful Dead in 2020. The Dead’s visionary and spiritual center of gravity was singer/guitarist Jerry Garcia, and when he died in 1995 after years of illness and decline, the band would seem to have concluded its relevance.

And yet something like the opposite happened. Various singer/guitarists replaced Garcia in touring configurations (most recently, John Mayer), and the Dead’s model, both economic and musical, has become a viable alternative to selling pop albums in the new century. Without a radio hit to their name, Phish can sell out Madison Square Garden for a string 13 shows in as many nights, based largely on relentless touring, sharing their live music for free, and allowing fans into a visceral experience in which improvisation and musical exploration are applied to the rock aesthetic.

This “jam band” scene has come to encompass a non-that-tiny world of bands: Widespread Panic, the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, Medeski Martin & Wood, the String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee, and Moe, not to mention dozens of bluegrass acts that embrace the model as well as scores of Dead cover outfits, some of which (the Darkstar Orchestra, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead) have national followings. By extension and inspiration, the Grateful Dead has become an entire industry of live music that defies modern pop. It’s a kind of roots/rock music umbrella that draws energy from fans of not only the Dead but also the Band, the Allman Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, and ripples out from there. It’s not jazz, with its long solo improvisations by saxophonists who know more about harmonic theory and advanced scalar conception but more like long collective “jams” in which the band goes deep into playing together through a kind of collective embellishment.

The least likely member of that pantheon is now solo pianist Holly Bowling. Her new recording of Grateful Dead songs, Seeking All That’s Still Unsung, follows two formal releases: 2015’s Distillation of a Dream: The Music of Phish Reimagined for Solo Piano and 2016’s Better Left Unsung: The Music of The Grateful Dead Reimagined for Solo Piano, not to mention even more digital releases of live shows.

Bowling spoke with PopMatters about the new recording and her career.


Guitar-Fender-Pink by rahu (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Once a Fan, Now a Force

Bowling is 36 years old—making her just a kid when Garcia died. But, contradicting the stereotype that all contemporary Deadheads are just boomers wearing tie-dye as they grey, she is part of the new generation. “The Dead were around for me since I was a little kid,” she explains. Before she ever imagined that she might be performing for jam band crowds, she was in the crowd. She has attended 200 to 300 Phish shows.

“I used to go to a show to lose myself. Everyone at a show is present and transformed. For me, live music is the thing—I spent so long chasing that feeling through listening to it.” Today, however, she is the one creating that feeling for other people. “It’s not the same being a performer as being a fan. When I go to a show as a listener, I don’t get lost in the same way as before. I don’t feel anonymous any more. But on the positive side, I’m reaching for that same mindset when I’m playing and improvising. That I can create this feeling for other people is the best.”

It started for her as she tried to conjure the group interaction she heard from Phish from the solo piano format. Her breakthrough came live, and in a YouTube performance of a transcription she created of the band’s 31 July 2013 performance of “Tweezer”, which resulted in her first, crowdfunded album. The transcriptions, which are often attempts to reimagine an entire performance, including all the improvisation or “band jam” moments, are not—of course—note for note recreations.

“This started as a nerdy pet project that was not intended to be shared with anyone. I was obsessed with that Phish performance—I just thought it was really cool. I had learned fragments of it, but then I actually wrote it all down. I grew up doing classical, so writing it down made sense.” Indeed, Bowling got a degree in classical piano performance from San Francisco State University, winning several piano department awards. Before the “Tahoe Tweezer” brought her notoriety, she taught Suzuki-method classical piano to kids in the Bay Area.

In creating these transcriptions, Bowling notes, “you can’t possibly play every note being played by a guitarist, pianist, bassist, the whole band. And even if I could, it would sound terrible. Total accuracy would be a disaster.” The transcriptions, then, whether of entire or partial jams, are themselves art. They try to capture the shape, motion, and dynamics of the original.”

On the strength of these hypnotic, technically superb performances, Bowling became a much-cheering opening act at many jam band shows, eventually becoming a featured performer at festivals.

A New Recording Beyond Live Performance

It’s notable that her first two formal releases were based on these transcription concepts and were marketed, in part, as classical recordings. And although she has several recordings of Dead material available online beyond Better Left Unsung, the material is largely in the same mode: the music she could make if she were playing live: two hands on the keyboard conjuring or implying a band performance.

For Seeking All That’s Still Unsung, she wanted to reach beyond that limitation. The result is a recording that, quite subtly, is not merely “solo piano”. Although she is the only performer and the only instrument is the piano, she has allowed herself a number of overdubs and the application of effects on an acoustic piano, expanding the sonic possibilities in presenting music conceived for a rock band.

Oddly enough, given that Bowling was trained at a classical conservatory rather than one of the many US jazz schools and is decidedly not a jazz player, her inspiration for the latest recording came from jazz. “I was wondering how I could make this one different from the last Dead album. So I put on some Bill Evans, his Conversations with Myself, and that became the spark of inspiration.” This 1963 recording by the acclaimed jazz pianist (leader of a classic piano-bass-drums trio and the co-creator, in effect, of Miles Davis’s 1959 Kind of Blue) involved overdubbing three different piano parts of jazz standards such as “Round Midnight” and “Blue Monk”.

“I don’t know that the result is ‘Bill Evans-esque’,” says Bowling, “but I’m excited by the inspiration.”

While Evans used three different tracks in conversation throughout his session, Bowling keeps things less layered. Many tracks—such as a very active “China Cat Sunflower”—contain no overdubs. Elsewhere, she uses mainly two tracks, and only in spots. “I didn’t go for three or four layers. I wanted tasteful but interesting. I’m always trying to get the studio work to have the same energy I get live.”


Photo: Jesse Bell / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

That said, Bowling explains that “I often have wished I had just one more hand.” So, for example, on “St. Stephen”, she layers a series of high downward arpeggios played as 32nd notes over a vigorous two-handed groove. It isn’t obviously two overdubbed parts unless you really listen for it. “When I’m playing live, there is a constant need to compress. Here, on ‘St. Stephen/The Eleven’ I can finally get to what I’ve been hearing in my head.”

Why not overdub on every track, if that is the path on this record? “Conversations with Myself is dense and almost too much in places,” says Bowling. “The whole thing with putting this music onto solo piano is keeping it organic and real. Overdubbing can just get tired. What I like about playing solo is that you can go from playing as many notes as possible to spare landscapes, quiet. The same with the record. If I added extra parts on every track, it would be too much. No one needs another track on a tune like ‘Stella Blue’.”

In addition to using overdubs, Bowling uses the effects of treatments on her piano here. The conclusion of “St. Stephen” leading into “The Eleven” puts a buzzing treatment on the high notes, creating a cool texture over her droning lower part. “I’ve only recently started putting my piano through effects.” A similar effect is powerful at the very start of “I Know You Rider”, with her high strings chiming almost like a celeste and the lower notes being slightly hand-muted. The effect is not mimicry of a rock band or a synthesizer but something closer to the unusual effect that new music pianists get in the classical world.

Changing the Music as Necessary

“Rider” points to another technique that Bowling often brings to this project: complicating the music in certain places while simplifying it in others. The Dead plays this old folk tune with its four chords and simple structure at a medium rock groove over which they layer individual solos that build up heads of steam based on polyrhythmic power and group interaction. For Bowling, that isn’t an option.

What she does instead is to make her “Rider” much more pianistic: harmonically and texturally varied. “I approached all the songs similarly in that I want to know them inside and out. I write out the vocal line very carefully so I can play it just as if I was singing. But then I try to get some distance from how other people have done it. I don’t want a perfect recreation. I would say that my harmonic approach to “Rider” here is… liberal. When you take away the stories and words, well, what are you left with? So here I play with the range, the texture, and the harmonies.

“Some songs require an additive process, some a subtractive process. ‘Rider’ is a good example of there being so little to work with that I had to add things to give it shape. On the other hand, my transcription of a version of ‘Eyes of the World’ requires me to consider what I am going to leave out, take up, and put in the foreground because there is so much.”

On Seeking All That’s Still Unsung, a good example of this is “Lost Sailor/Saint of Circumstance”. Bowling plays it in a manner harmonically faithful to the original, with nuanced chords and dynamic range. Bowling doesn’t overdub a thing to get more texture of density and takes up the challenge of playing the tune as a beautifully composed tune. It’s the pair of tracks here that are the most like a Bill Evans-ish, jazz type of performance, with the harmonies’ shape defining it graciously and a sense of space in the middle of the tune that a six-piece rock struggles to achieve.


Photo: Jefferey Bowling / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

The Question of Improvisation and, Inevitably, Jazz

But for all the reference to Bill Evans, Bowling avoids every “jazz pianist” cliche. Is there improvising on Seeking all That’s Unsung? Is Bowling really an improviser?

Mostly, based on her recorded music and history, the answer is “no”—at least in the way that we think of jazz musicians improvising on tunes, spinning chorus after chorus of new melody based on the harmonic structure of the original. Bowling acknowledges that “initially my music was not as improv-heavy” but was nearly all written out. “I’ve been doing more music with improvisation lately, however.”

Although she was trained as a classical player, Bowling had some teachers “who gave me improvisation building blocks.” She was listening to jam bands improvise, and then she “started messing around with it on the piano. And at some point playing music on my instrument went from having technical ability to a place where I had the capacity to express my emotions.”

In working on reimagining Phish music, she found places for her own improvisations. “I’d hear a long sustained note from Trey [Anastasio, Phish’s guitarist]—but how could I do that on the piano? Those are little things I was trying to replicate that pushed me to use my own tools. And after living with the songs for so many years, after working on an arrangement, I’d find new things in it, hearing the bass line for the first time. Approaching it as a performer has made me listen with fresh ears.”

Mostly, however, Bowling’s moments of improvisation sound like embellishments—blues runs, gospel licks, the kinds of soulful playing you might hear on a Billy Joel or Elton John record, though they are placed between pianistic statements of melody rather than catchy pop choruses. The effect remains largely the same: Bowling juices her creations with jazzy moments but not with jazz. She uses the tools of improvisation to populate a carefully arranged landscape that presents these songs in her conception. Her improvisation emerges in spots, not across longer passages.

Several tracks couldn’t sound more classical—largely absent of any “jazz” feeling. Her “Weather Report Suite/Let It Grow” sounds baroque and romantic by turns, but never swinging or shot with a blues impulse. Her “Sage and Spirit” is a two-part impressionist invention that flutters beautifully but never seems to take improvisational flight.

“Stella Blue” has a deliciously quiet opening with contrasting registers that ease us into the tune’s lovely minor harmonics. But what might have sounded something more like “jazz” ultimately uses written descending figures that repeat with such clear symmetry that the effect is more structured.

But, of course, despite the Dead’s penchant for improvisation, Bowling herself notes that “Phish’s stuff is more grounded in jazz than the Dead, with dissonance and tension and release. They are really different bands though they both feature an improvisational looseness onstage.” This doesn’t directly transfer to her approach, however. “I’m not trying to play Phish like Phish or the Dead like the Dead. I don’t put certain scales or chords off-limits when doing one or the other.”

Still, it’s apparent that Bowling is, indeed, “very careful and delicate with some of the Grateful Dead ballads”, making that “Stella Blue” a crystal vase of a tune.


Photo: Jefferey Bowling / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

Choices: Making This Project Work and Not Curdle

Listening to the new Bowling recording is to hear a musician walking several tightropes at once.

Making piano-only versions of rock tunes risks all kinds of offenses. How can she avoid sounding like she is taking music that had a ragged elegance in “rock” form and sanding down its edges (George Winston plays The Dead for Relaxation!) or giving it a pseudo-classy makeover (The Dead Goes Mozart!)? Bowling says that the answer is in “knowing what not to do. There are plenty of songs I’ve tried and I’ve set aside. It sounded too much like Muzak. I also think it’s a lot about intention. I try not to do showy technique for the sake of technique, or pretty for the sake of pretty.”

Making the music not too pretty is certainly part of the achievement here. Its backbone and strength are in finding ways to refract these tunes—so familiar to Grateful Dead fans and otherwise somewhat strange and improbable songs to be considered part of a “rock” canon—so that they command attention as compositions. They can’t just be pretty stuff, wallpaper, background music.

And Bowling, as the very very very rare female performer on the scene who is not a singer, can’t fall into sexist cliches. “The whole music industry is steeped in sexism,” she casually notes. “Touring and performing—there are times when you are taken for granted. It is assumed all too often that I am the girlfriend or the merch person. Playing the stuff in a too-pretty or too-fussy mode isn’t an option.

“But I think it easier to be a female musician now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. There have been occasional uncomfortable experiences. But, mainly, I’m stoked to be part of including women in the scene. I want to be seen doing it.”

And Now for Something Different—or More Like Her Inspiration

More recently, Bowling has been splitting her time between the solo playing she is known for and a new adventure. She joined forces with four Philadelphia-based musicians to play as Ghost Light. This is jam band music, so, of course, a Dead connection is there. Guitarist Tom Hamilton is known for playing in Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (and with Russo in the band American Babies). Along with guitarist Raina Mullen, bassist Steve Lyons, and drummer Scotty Zwang, the band has recorded and played the festival circuit (Peach and Lock’n, for example). The music is original, but with covers of the Dead and other classic rock material.

Bowling calls it “so much fun”. “Everyone is on board to take risks every night. We have a rule of saying yes—and I feel constantly challenged.

Listening to Ghost Light live sets suggests that Bowling’s work as a Dead and Phish interpreter may be the least interesting part of her long-term development as an artist. In conversation with the band, she sounds looser, more truly an improviser, and, yes, more challenged. She plays electric piano, organ, and piano, and her creativity is central to the band’s sound, even though she is not one of the singers. Not having to carry every part of the tunes—melody and rhythm as well as harmony and texture—frees her to play with more expressiveness. She seems less apt to play a blues lick just like Billy Preston or Billy Joel because it fits easily into the moment.

“The best thing about the band is that I can do both. Playing solo, you can make a left turn whenever you want and you don’t need anyone to follow. But there is no one to cover for you if you go wrong. And you’re in a monologue, making it hard to think of something new to say. In the band, you have ideas being fed to you. I love being able to go back and forth between the two.

“As someone who likes to improvise outside the structure, I’ve found partners outside the structure.”