Jason Crosby Works His Way from Sideman to Main Man 

March 10, 2023
Marty Halpern


The list of musicians Jason Crosby has worked with is a who’s who of multiple genres of music. He tackled pop music with Jenny Lewis. Rocked with Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Pete Seeger. He’s a mainstay in the Jam band world performing/recording countless times with Jimmy Herring, Oteil Burbridge and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and Phil Lesh.  

With a perpetually packed schedule, Crosby rarely gets the time to release a solo record. His latest release “Gilder” is an homage to the same musicians he’s stood side by side with for years.  

“Gilder” is simple. It’s Crosby on piano for eleven songs. There’s one original, one from his late brother Chris who the album is dedicated to. The rest are covers of the wide variety of musicians he’s been performing with his entire career.  

Slideandbanjo.com spoke with Crosby about his latest release and the incredible road he’s traveled as a sideman for music’s elite. He begins with a unique source of inspiration for “Gilder.” 

“One place to point is Neal Casal. When he passed, Gary Waldman, his manager and my good friend, told me they were thinking about making a tribute album. Gary asked if I’d cover one of Neal’s songs. We decided I would play a solo piano version of “Pray Me Home.” I recorded it on my voice memo and sent it to Gary. He texted me back saying this is exactly what I want you to do.” 

Crosby, who tours with Jackson Browne continues, “I played it for some of Jackson’s band mates. They said they’d listen to a whole record of music like this. Separate from that, Dave Schools (Widespread Panic) and Blue Rose’s Joe Poletto made the same comment. It was like if all these people from different places were saying the same thing. It’s probably a good idea to explore.  

I decided, why don’t I pay tribute to all the artists I’ve worked with. I played one of Jenny Lewis’s songs “Taffy.” I was just sitting at my house at the grand piano, and I played it into my voice memos and texted it to her. Her response was so heartwarming. She was touched and loved it. Her reply inspired me to continue doing it.” 

From there, Crosby says the momentum kept growing, “Based on the positive feedback, I kept going. That was how I did it. I’d record one, send it to the artist and if I got their approval I’d move on. Honestly, the process of creating it was almost as rewarding as the album coming out. Those artists were the reason I did it and it was a very cool process.”   

What stands out most in “Gilder” is Crosby’s ability to pinpoint the heart of each song and translate it perfectly through his grand piano. He says finding the proper interpretation took some wrangling. “I didn’t write anything out. I chose tunes I thought I had inside me and I knew pretty well. I’d sit down and start playing it from my knowledge of the song. Then I would start to mess with it. How can I reharmonize it. How can I alter the melody or the arrangements. What will make it interesting and exciting for the format of solo piano. When you’re playing the solo piano version of a song where the lyrics are the key element and you don’t have that, you have to take it to different places to keep it musically interesting.” 

The album was recorded in two sessions and features Crosby’s take on Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Lotus on Irish Streams,” Browne’s “Color of the Sun,” “Unbroken Chain” from the Grateful Dead along with “Taffy” and his brother Chris’s “Headed Down to the Library.” That’s just the first session.  

The second includes James Taylor’s “Wandering,” Oteil Burbridge’s “Water in the Desert,” Father John Misty’s “Ballad of a Dying Man,” Pete Seeger’s “Take it from Dr. King,” Mother Hips “Seward Son” and Crosby’s “Almost Thursday.” A voyage all over the musical map.  

Covering so many genres with so many different musicians gives Crosby pause to avoid a Spinal Tap moment, He begins, “I love every genre I’ve been employed to play. They are very different and sometimes I have to remember what scene I’m departing and which one I’m entering. When I play with Jenny Lewis, I love her. That music requires a different head space than playing with Jimmy Herring.” 

“The same going back and forth with Phil and Jackson.” Crosby posits, “Phil loves a dixie land style of improv with multiple solos going on at the same time. With Jackson it’s very much the opposite. Every part has its place. Every note has its own formula. I’ll know that and still slip up at times. Phil will give me that look like play more. Or I’ll think I’m playing sparse enough and Jackson will look and be like can you play a few less licks on that one. I love all of it and I’ve learned so much.” 

Crosby adds, “The lucky part of my journey is I learned how to play the blues on the B.B. King tour with Susan Tedeschi in 2000. I’d play with the Blind Boys of Alabama and Robert Randolph and learned how to be in the gospel style. Playing with Jenny Lewis and Jackson was how I learned the Los Angeles pop singer sound. For me it’s a music education.”   

Like numerous East coast musicians, Crosby headed west for the exploding San Francisco music scene in 2013. Thanks to a serendipitous moment with God Street Wine, he hasn’t left. “A lot of people were taking notice and migrating there. TRI (Bob Weir’s studio) was in full force. Terrapin Crossroads (Phil Lesh’s club) was opening. Sweetwater had just been renovated.  On God Street Wine’s 20th anniversary, they did a broadcast from TRI. Matt Busch their manager and manager of Bob Weir, wanted to turn them on to Bob and Phil. The band brought their original lineup. I joined as a special sixth man.” 

He muses, “The moment that made the shift to California happen was a gig in Terrapin. There was only one keyboard at the bar that was in use. I couldn’t play keys but had my violin. Phil was sitting next to Matt and was like who the hell is that guy playing the violin. Phil asked me for my info, hit me up and invited me to play with him at the Wellmont.” 

After a couple of sit ins with Weir, Crosby says his California fate was sealed. “Matt kept pushing me up. He said Bobby had a cancellation for his Weir Here broadcast. I was staying with Shanna Morrison (Van’s daughter) and brought her. Bob loved it and asked if I’d come back and play again next week. When he didn’t call the next week, I was like oh shit.” 

“The next week, a couple of hours before the show he called and said what do think of coming by today. I was like hell yeah. At that one, I said I was thinking about moving here. Bob said if you do you can keep playing. It was crazy to have two principals of the Grateful Dead asking me to play with them. I knew I’d have to be in San Francisco to make it work so I packed up and moved. Everything that’s happened in the last 10 plus years is due to that.” 

Crosby tells Slideandbanjo.com he’s already completed a second volume of tributes which includes covers of Weir, Herring, Tim Bluhm and will have a few unique elements “Gilder” did not.  

After a career of musical highlights only a select few achieve, Crosby admits sometimes he has to step back and take it all in, “It’s priceless. I still get the fanboy when my phone buzzes and it says James Taylor text message or Jackson Browne text message. Or if it’s a call from Phil Lesh. I still get the shiver like oh my god this is my life. These are my peers and friends. It’s humbling.   

If I’m playing with Oteil, someone I have a history with back to the 90’s. To see where we’re at now. He’s been in the Allman Brothers and Dead and Company since then. To see his progression and see his journey along side him, it brings a sense of accomplishment and fulfilling emotions. Then there’s the surreal side. My favorite Dead stuff was the 70’s Blues for Allah era. When I’m playing that with Phil and Bob and we hit a certain chord or passage that brings me back to my childhood, it’s literally hair raising.” 

Crosby concludes, “The same thing goes when James Taylor was on the Jackson tour. James played with us every night. I was playing Jackson’s piano with James in between Jackson and myself. I was like how did this happen? In the moment I try not to think about it because I don’t want to lose focus and get emotionally overwhelmed. 

A lot of times it’s post show reflection or even years later reflection on some things. When I would play with John McLaughlin, I’d walk to Jimmy Herring during the bows. I’d give him a hug and say can you believe we get to do this? And get paid to do so. Musicians want to play. When you play in those prime situations, that’s why you do it. That’s why you spend 50 nights straight in a hotel. Or 13 hour flights. I earn my money the other 22 hours a day I’m not playing.” 

Jason Crosby “Gilder” 2022 Blue Rose Records 

Photos William Coupon and Jason Crosby

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