Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way right now. Mike Gordon has no current plans to reform Phish. When the band's ex-bassist played at the Rothbury festival in Michigan in early July with former drummer Jon Fishman playing on Friday night with Yonder Mountain String Band and Trey Anastasio playing a Sunday set just before Gordon's, rumors of a reunion abounded. But Gordon shoots 'em down.
"We're not even gonna get together. We said that we'd like to try getting together and talking about what we could do, and that's where it's at," Gordon says by phone from Burlington, Vt. "I just keep saying the same thing over and over again -- there's definite enthusiasm among all of us, but in the meantime, we're just all doing our own things."
But on a more positive note, he won't say never to a down-the-road get together. "On the other hand, it's great that the four of us are still alive and that there's the potential."
Right now, Gordon has all he can do with his own band, touring behind his new record, The Green Sparrow, due out Aug. 5. "It's really a lot, even to the point where it's hard to practice," he says. "It's what I wanted, to be in a position where my decision-making is crucial rather than irrelevant." He quickly adds that his input was not considered irrelevant with Phish, but there were so many smart people around that not everyone was needed to make all the decisions. But even with his desire to be the guy totally in charge he still wants a collaborative effort in his new band. "My goal is not to be completely the Mike Gordon show. I'd like it to be a band where everyone's contributing creatively and people have so much diverse musical backgrounds that it's just great to tap into the potential."
With his current touring band -- Tom Cleary, keys; Todd Isler, drums; percussionist Craig Meyers and Scott Murawski on guitar -- he has plenty of options. Murawski is a longtime vet of the jam band Max Creek, who currently tours in a power trio with drummer Bill Kreutzmann and bassist Oteil Burbridge. Cleary is rooted in jazz and has performed with Clark Terry and studied with Yusef Lateef and Archie Shepp. Isler apprenticed in India and toured Africa, and percussionist Meyers plays in three African groups including Rubblebucket, a 10-piece Afro-beat ensemble out of Boston.
All those sounds swirl around on Sparrow, backed by a chunky dose of funk. It's got a healthy injection of world music (the King Sunny Ade licks on "Andelman's Yard"), but plenty of American regional roots are intertwined, like the New Orleans second line riddums on "Sound."
The African influence is palpable. "There's something about African music where there can be a lot of people playing simple parts," says Gordon, who admits to being a serious fan. "When you hear the overall sound, it's polyrhythmic and it's not easy to figure out what rhythms are being combined. If you listen to just one part, it's a very simple part so the whole ends up being greater than the sum of the parts and I like that -- it's mesmerizing."
For those looking for Phish comparisons, Sparrow is considerably more concise than anything in Gordon's back catalogue. Most cuts clock in around four minutes; "Andleman's Yard" is the longest at six. "I like albums to be short," Gordon says. "I like rock albums to be short and, on stage, the idea is to take the songs and find ways to stretch them out, make the solo a little bit longer, but in unexpected parts of the song, open it up because on stage if something is sounding good, I like for it go on as long as possible."
Gordon pared down the song list from 50 to 10 for the record, "You do these big artistic projects, whether it's an album or a movie or even a painting, where it's strange how the path is marked ... where you get these gut feelings, or the album tells you what songs it wants on it, or the Sparrow in this case, chirps its desires."
The sparrow wanted to rock. "It's the first real rocking album," Gordon says. "Not that it's heavy metal, but it's upbeat and funky and it chugs along throughout." His only other solo album, Inside In, was the soundtrack to his movie, Outside Out. He calls his new songs, "accessible, about meaningful things," but assures Phishers that he still juxtaposes rhythms for some unpredictable moments.
And though there are Phishy similarities, Gordon has taken steps to ensure the band doesn't get caught in a noodle trap when they play it live. He calls it listening exercises, but it's actually jamming practice. "What we found with Phish is that it's easy to noodle," the bassist says. "We were playing a lot of notes and we were all in our own world so a lot of the jams sounded disconnected."
Gordon says when you open up your ears on stage, the actual notes you play and the rhythms and the choices you make are still 100 percent spontaneous, but the conversation is not one-sided. "I want to be able to take it to a place where the chord progressions might be made up on the spot, even maybe in the middle of a song there might be a key change or a tempo change or a new melody might come out that hadn't been planned out at all and to be able to go with that, you have to be listening or it's just going to sound noodly."
The new band started practicing the exercises right away. "I was discovering you have to relearn these lessons over and over again, life lessons, probably, but one of them is if you're playing music with someone else, it's important to listen," Gordon says. "When everyone's listening and the music becomes bigger than life, the music plays the band."
Mike Gordon plays the Neighborhood Theatre on Aug. 7. Tickets are $20.