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Steve Molitz and Particle dig for musical treasures at Snowmass fest

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoParticle: Eric Gould, Darren Pujalet, Ben Combe and Steve Molitz, left to right. Combe is no longer a member of the band.
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SNOWMASS VILLAGE – When the idea that being referred to as part of the jam-band world is brought up, Steve Molitz laughs. The 31-year-old keyboardist, best known for his membership in the Los Angeles group Particle, then goes on to make observations that have been made over and over about the jam-band scene – descriptions that, no doubt, repel listeners who haven’t grasped the charm of the meandering guitar solo, the 15-minute improvisation between songs. Molitz talks of “occupying the psychic space” of playing in-the-moment, improvised music; of musicians pushing each other to new places; the crucial role the audience plays in the concert experience.And then a moment of inspiration hits. Molitz comes up with a metaphor that illuminates the mentality linking such groups as progressive rock band moe. and the techno-leaning Particle (both of whom are on the bill on Saturday at the Snowmass Chili Pepper & Brew Fest); the instrumental keyboard trio Medeski, Martin & Wood; the Roots, who have been called hip-hop’s contribution to the jam realm; and the acoustic-based Railroad Earth. I’ve never heard it put better, and it’s a metaphor Molitz has never used before. Apropos of a jam-band player, it came out of the ether.”It’s like digging for buried treasure,” Molitz said. “A lot of bands, they have the gold already, these songs that people want to hear, and they’re playing the same songs the same way, every night. They just show up on stage with the gold. The jam audience – they don’t want us to show up holding the gold. They want to see us digging.”Molitz has explored deep and wide in the jam world. Particle, which was founded in L.A. in 2000, is a trio of Molitz, bassist Eric Gould and drummer Darren Pujalet which used to include a steady guitarist, but now employs a rotation of guest players. Mandolinist Michael Kang, formerly of String Cheese Incident, and guitarist Josh Clark, of Tea Leaf Green, are scheduled to appear at Particle’s Snowmass show, as are percussionist Ben Baruch and saxophonist Pete Wall. In the past, Particle performances have been rounded out by such guitarists at Robbie Krieger of the Doors, Brian Jordan of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, and Joe Satriani.Away from that steady job, Molitz has pursued a variety of gigs. Most notably, he was tapped by Phil Lesh, of the proto-jam-band the Grateful Dead, to play in his Phil & Friends. Molitz – who had not been a Deadhead, and never saw the band in its Jerry Garcia heyday – spent much of the last two years becoming intimately acquainted with the latter-day Dead scene. At the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this year, he appeared as part of the electronica group EOTO. After collaborating on a soundtrack project with San Francisco singer-songwriter Jerry Hannan, he extended the partnership: Jerry Hannan & the Decades has recorded an album and will appear at this year’s Bonnaroo festival.••••Molitz’s music career began with no gold at all, and a lot of digging. When the Southern California native arrived at the University of Colorado in Boulder he had a couple years of piano lessons under his belt, but those had been as a little kid, and any skills had mostly eroded. But downstairs at CU’s Farrand Hall, the pianos beckoned him. “I sat down at those by myself and learned how to play,” he said.Technically Molitz was in the English and psychology departments. In reality, he was a music student, though a furtive one. Using tricks like pretending to have forgotten the lock combinations, he snuck his way into the practice rooms at CU to spend hours at the harpsichords and grand pianos. He also sat in on music classes, unenrolled. He supplemented his campus training with all-night jam sessions at an apartment in the Boulder neighborhood known as the Hill.”That’s where we really learned how to play,” said Molitz, who formed his first band, Vinyl Richie, during his sophomore year. “Those long, epic performances, that was my training for Particle – songs that would go out to 20 minutes, explore variations on a theme. It wasn’t verse/chorus/verse stuff. “There really isn’t, at the end of the day, any difference between the way I played a 45-minute jam session on the Hill and a 45-minute ‘Dark Star’ with Phil Lesh. It’s the same exploration of inner and outer space at the same time. It’s exploring the limits of the instrument, and the infinite combinations in our minds and hearts and souls.”Back in Los Angeles after graduation, Molitz and his CU jam-mate Gould hooked up with Pujalet and guitarist Dave Simmons to form Particle, an instrumental band that used techno sounds and an improvisatory platform. Simmons died soon after Particle was launched; he was replaced with a series of members, but for the past two years, it has been a trio with ample room for guests to sit in.Keeping the seat warm for additional players is a model that suits Molitz perfectly. When we spoke earlier this week, he was on the northern Indiana farm of Willie Waldman, a trumpeter whose band Molitz is planning to sit in with at a Pennsylvania festival later this month. Molitz was listening to Waldman run his scales, and musing about how those basic arrangements of tones can be given an infinite range of personalities by different players.”These scales, people have been running for hundreds of years, and people will be playing them as long as there are humans. It’s an endless quest,” he said. “And when you apply it to live music, you always learn something about music, about yourself as a musician. To me, this is what it’s all about. You always learn something.”The way his career is arranged, Molitz is doubly fortunate. In Particle, he gets to hear various musicians add their take to the band’s techno-rock foundation. (It is considered a special occasion when Particle appears as a trio.) As a guest with other projects, he gets abundant opportunities to live inside other players’ visions.”It’s exciting for us to have a fresh perspective and their interpretations of what the Particle sound is,” Molitz said of the band’s habit of inviting guests for their performances. “There’s a lot of freedom for guitar players to add something, to add their take on the material.”In Phil & Friends, whose repertoire consists largely of material from the Grateful Dead days, Molitz gets to inhabit a world he knew little about. On the advice of a friend, Lesh checked out a Particle show in 2004. After the show, Lesh invited Molitz to play a few concerts; on a tour stop in Amsterdam, a package of six CDs, containing 100 songs for Molitz to learn, showed up. Soon, Molitz found himself on stage with other Phil “Friends,” such as the Black Crows’ Chris Robinson, and guitarist Jimmy Herring, now of Widespread Panic.”When I first played with Phil, with [guitarists] John Scofield and Warren Haynes, I remember thinking, ‘I’m up here with some real heavyweights. I’ve got to step up my game here. I’m going to be hanging by my fingernails,'” he said. “But the truth is, the musicians are all welcoming and supportive. They get on stage and all these fears disappear. You’re left with the celebration of the moment, and the music trumps everything.”That’s always been Particle’s goal as a band, from the first show. We always try to occupy that psychic space where you’re not thinking about where you are or who you are. You’re just playing. The fans, too – we all have the same goal, to get to that place the music takes us where you exist purely in the moment. And every now and then you find yourself playing something you’ve never played before, and the audience picks up on that, and you’ve found yourself, all together, in a place you’ve never been before.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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