The Trey Anastasio Band saxophonist steps out with his first full-length solo release as he continues to battle colon cancer.
Stuck in Paradise
During the pandemic, my partner Ayla and I got stuck in Kauai, which was pretty amazing. We were there from March 2020 through June 2021. We already had a trip to Hawaii planned—Ayla had a business trip and it was a little vacation for me—and while we were there, they shut down New York so we were obviously not going back for a while. My old roommate from Brooklyn lives in Kauai and his parents had an Airbnb that they couldn’t fill because of the pandemic so we just called it home for a little while and rented after that. One of my best friends and one of my partner’s best friends wrapped up all of our stuff in New York and put it in storage while we were gone. It was just a beautiful situation.
But I also realized that I wasn’t going to be playing with anyone for a long time. Luckily, I had my saxophone and my computer with me because I had taken them on the trip so I started to produce these little tracks so that I had something to practice to.
In the beginning of 2020, I was on tour with Trey and we started hearing little rumblings about what was happening in China. Then, Cyro [Baptista] got really sick while we were on tour, though he ended up getting the flu, not coronavirus.
We joked about it while we were onstage the next night, but when I sat back and thought about it, I said to myself, “This might be a serious problem.” I thought about the shutdowns happening in China and realized that the same thing could happen over here. I started really paying attention to what was going on, and I did a post in February 2020 saying that musicians should start saving up some money for when their live gigs start drying up because we don’t know how long this thing will last. A lot of people said that I was jumping the gun or inflaming the situation, but I just felt like it was something that needed to be said. And it seems like I was correct.
So my partner and I decided to make Aux Chord—a place where people could go to stream their content in a way that wasn’t just Instagram or Facebook, which is basically busking. Also, all the proceeds would go straight to the musicians. I asked all the artists who would perform on Aux Chord if they would send me a cappella versions of some of their songs so that I could make beats for some promo. Eventually, I had to perform a show myself on Aux Chord when one of our artists couldn’t perform at the last minute. I had to get some music together in an hour so I used a couple of those tracks and they turned out really well. After I got back to New York, I fleshed out a few of those tracks and made them into full songs commemorating my time in Kauai, which became my new LP, The Kaua’i Project.
I used samples from a few of the people who sent music over to Aux Chord, like Adam Ahuja, Louis Cato, Brian “Raydar” Ellis, DJ Nebraska and Khris Royal. And then, on top of that, I called in some friends to fill out the rest of the music—I’ve got my guy Randy Runyon on guitar, Reuben Cainer on bass, Josh Dion playing drums on a song, and Corey Bernhard playing some keys. They are a lot of the guys I use for my different projects.
Scared of the Consequences
We got back to New York right before the Billy & The Kids shows I played at [Morrison, Colo.’s] Red Rocks in the summer of 2021. I flew out there, played those gigs and, while I was out in Colorado, I felt like my stomach was extremely bloated. I didn’t know what was going on—I thought it was because of the altitude. But, a week later, I was in the ER. They sent me back home, but I had to go back to the ER two days later and then they sent me back home again. And then two days later, I had to get emergency surgery because I had colon cancer.
When your mortality is staring you in the face, you start thinking about things differently. One of the first thoughts I had was, “What did I do all of this work for and did it have any meaning?” And then my next thought was that I really needed to put something out under my own name, which I had never done before. The Kaua’i Project was supposed to be the first thing that came out under my name but it always takes longer than you think to get certain tracks back. Then, I had this opportunity to do this Christmas EP, A Little Something for Everyone. And I jumped at that. It ended up coming out first, at the end of last year, and it benefits The Colorectal Cancer Alliance and Eastern Virginia Medical School’s HOPES Clinic, which provides free colon cancer screenings for the uninsured.
I had been afraid—scared of the consequences of putting something out under my own name—but I have no choice but to deal with that now. I never thought that I was good enough to say the things that I wanted to say, but I’ve realized that I was wrong about that. And this opportunity also kind of makes up for the fact that I’ve never done anything like this before. This experience puts things in perspective—it gives you some parameters.
I’ve been able to go back on the road with Trey while I’m doing chemo but it is a whole lot of work. It’s a testament to all the people that have been working with me—from the doctors and the hospital staff to Trey and his team and my family. It’s a giant puzzle, and I don’t necessarily know how I’m going to feel from day to day. I have a two-week chemo arc. For example, I disconnected yesterday so this is “day one” and I’ll have a whole lot more energy two days from now. Five days from now, I will be feeling good but, in order to get to that point, it takes a whole lot of effort. I also take a gram of RSO [Rick Simpson Oil] everyday. And if I am on tour on the West Coast or something, I need to fly back to New York on the days that I have treatment and there’s 48 hours of feeling and dealing with everything. Fortunately, I always have an extra day to rest but it’s rough, man. I’ve got a great team around me and they make it happen.
Unfolding From the Outside
When I got to Kauai, I heard that there were some other musicians out there—Rick Rubin, Bill Kreutzmann, Carlos Santana. Beyoncé and Jay Z were there for a bit. Kauai is only 50,000 people and, during the pandemic, there was no tourism so, the first time that I met Santana, I actually saw him on the beach. I just walked by him and I was like, “We’ve got the same Grammys hat.” But I didn’t really get up with any of those guys to do anything because I didn’t have any real connection with them.
Then, Matt Butler from Everyone Orchestra flew to Kauai to work on a project. We had lunch and, as he was leaving, he let me know that he was going to let Bill Kreutzman know that I was in town. I didn’t know anything about the Grateful Dead—the only Grateful Dead music I knew was from playing with Oteil & Friends at LOCKN’ once in 2019.
Soon after that, I got a phone call from Bill’s people asking me if I wanted to come over and play his 75th birthday shows in Kauai. Because I hadn’t played in a while, I said, “Sure.” Billy Strings and Santana were there, too. When we took a break, Carlos Santana sat down at a table and just talked for hours about all this “take it to the grave” stuff—Miles Davis and all these amazing people and how these legends inform the music that he makes. At first, I was only going to play a few songs, but then they asked me to do the entire thing and then they asked me to play Red Rocks.
Then, I was asked to do some of the Phil Lesh birthday shows at [Port Chester, N.Y.’s] Capitol Theatre last year with Natalie Cressman and Jennifer Hartswick. And we’ve kept going with that as well. By now, I must have learned at least a hundred Grateful Dead songs, and they’re all very different and unique. It’s almost like I get to watch something unfold from the outside because it’s already happened but I also get to see the whole thing from the inside and be a part of this Grateful Dead world.
I’m very happy that I’ve got the girls up there with me because they know this stuff better than I do and they definitely help me out all the time. It’s been cool to learn the ins and outs of the music and to realize that the handles everyone has on Instagram actually come from these songs.
Straight to Voicemail
How I ended up playing Grateful Dead music is kind of the same way I ended up playing with Trey, which opened up a whole new paradigm that I didn’t even know existed. In 2012, I was playing with Soulive and Lettuce and we did Bowlive, where we played all these shows at Brooklyn Bowl in New York over a two-week period. I had been playing with Lettuce and Soulive for about two years at that point, after I met them through Sam Kininger, their old saxophonist. He played Wally’s in Boston every Tuesday when I was at Berklee. I was this 18-year-old kid who barely knew anything about jazz, walked into this club, saw Sam and that changed my whole trajectory.
Jennifer was a Bowlive guest one night. We didn’t know each other at all but, at the end of the show, we both said, “You sounded great.” Later that year, I met her and Natalie in the back of One Eyed Jacks in New Orleans. I jokingly said to her: “This is the year of James getting the gig.” And then I said, “If you ever have a gig, let me know because I’m trying to branch out and do some other stuff.” And she was like, “Actually, I already recommended you for something. I hope it happens.”
Cut to August, and I get a phone call while I am in bed. I didn’t pick up and, when I listened to the message, it was from a dude named Trey Anastasio. He said that he has some band called Phish and that Jennifer had given him my number. I didn’t know what was up so I went back to bed and, when I woke up, I called Eric Krasno from Lettuce and Soulive. He told me to hang up with him immediately and call Trey back right away.
To be honest with you, I have no idea how I keep getting called to take part in this stuff that I don’t know anything about but I appreciate it. Fortunately, I am in a position where it seems like I can still continue to create music. I have no idea what is coming next, but I am excited to find out what it is.