If you’re not familiar with the band, there are some things you should know about Jazz is Dead. This is not just another Dead “tribute band.” Far from it. The band’s approach is to take the great repertoire of the Grateful Dead and to interpret it in a jazz-fusion style. There are no vocals; this band is all about focusing on the amazing music without allowing the vocals to distract from the “musical conversation,” as they call it. They are trying to give a fresh reading to material that has aged well but that has nonetheless been heard largely one way for decades. To do this, you can’t have just anybody playing the music. This is a band of seasoned veteran musicians who have been playing at the forefront of jazz and rock music for decades. Billy Cobham, whose thunderous and explosive playing revolutionized jazz/rock drumming in the 70s with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, single-handedly takes care of the two drum parts of the Dead. Jeff Pevar is the sensational guitarist who currently plays with CPR. T. Lavitz, a member of the Dixie Dregs, plays keys. Kenny Gradney of Little Feat rounds out the band on bass. [I encourage you to check out the band’s website (www.jazzisdead.com) for a great bio on each band member since I can’t really do it justice here.] Accordingly, I was really excited to have the opportunity to conduct an interview and see the show at one of my favorite venues on November 26.
The current Jazz is Dead project is called “Reimagining Europe ’72.” The album it refers to is the breakthrough live compilation of the Dead’s 1972 European Tour. But the band has chosen to focus on several of the gems from Europe ‘72 rather than playing the entire triple-album cover-to-cover. This was a good decision. It was better to hear selected songs played well in long, improvisational versions, rather than hearing every song being fit in just for the sake of completeness.
When I arrived at the Birchmere (a legendary restaurant/music venue located in Alexandria, Virginia), I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I was escorted backstage by the band’s tour manager where I was introduced to Billy Cobham and Jeff Pevar. I set up my equipment and launched into the interview with the two band members while they got in their pre-show meal. One of the first things they made clear to me is that the whole idea of the band is really to use the Dead’s songs as a starting point—a blueprint—from which they can each add their unique musical perspectives to come up with an exciting and entertaining sound that appeals to Deadheads, jazz fans, and music fans in general.
Here are some excerpts from the enjoyable and enlightening interview before the show:
After asking whether they thought Europe ‘72 was the band’s best official live release, I got some blank stares from the guys, so I followed the question up...
How much do you guys actually listen to the Dead’s music?
BC:I don’t...But, this time, more than ever before, I’m quite surprised by the material that they have available in their books. It’s great stuff, man. I’m not looking at it because I’m in a completely different area of the music business really. And, so it’s almost coming into this thing naively, expecting to lay it down and be done with it and then you start to listen to the stuff played properly by the musicians who are working with you and you go, “Man, this is some interesting stuff!” And, I start to think about a future for the music away from this project—if I were to take something and develop it myself, I really feel it’s worth that effort to put something together in the way that it’s been presented here. Because Jeff, primarily, is the one that has created the arrangements for the whole presentation and he’s put a different spin on a lot of the tunes. It’s set us off on a completely different direction that’s made for me personally, in my opinion, the music more accessible for me, more interesting for me, and raised the bar a little bit and given these dimensions to the material that were not there before, which I think is why I was not so interested in it.
JP: I wasn’t necessarily a Deadhead, but I had been exposed to some of their records and, in fact, Europe ‘72 was the first record I had heard of theirs which I really liked. And, then, you know I’ve been playing with [David] Crosby for a number of years in this band and met Phil. Phil sat in with us once or twice—and then Phil asked me to tour with him in 2000, so I did a month. And, I had to learn 70 Grateful Dead songs in the course of like a month. It was crazy is what it was. It was really a crash course and I, too, was very surprised at what I found. Compositionally, they really had some really interesting music and I was very surprised at the depth of their musicality: going from folk to fusion and everything in between. But, for me, I kind of come from a rhythm and blues and funk background, and am certainly familiar with all of the guys who are in this band-I’ve listened to their records. And, it’s kind of interesting because, the band before, I came up with a couple of arrangements and specifically thought, “Let’s play this song like a Little Feat song.” And, now all of a sudden, this time around, we’re playing with Little Feat’s bass player! I knew he’d have no problem with that groove.
Yeah, you guys have an amazing lineup.
JP: It’s really fun...So, in all honesty, I came in prepared, thinking, “I better come up with some arrangements because they might throw some stuff at me that I can’t even play. So, if I get my shit together, come up with a couple of ideas, at least I’ll have some stuff practiced and worked out.” And, as it worked out, everyone is very busy doing a lot of different projects, so any work that anyone does towards us getting this together, is work that’s well spent—time well spent. So, we got into the room and we had just some ideas to go from, but, really, everybody’s creating the music and, you know, nobody tells anybody what to play. We just kind of come up with some suggestions, and then it’s up to the player to kind of interpret it in his own way.
Do you guys feel an obligation, ever, to stay true to a certain song, or the way it’s played? Or, is it just like free, complete artistic license?
BC: Sometimes it’s important. There’s a piece called “Cumberland [Blues]” that I felt needed to just be played like “Cumberland.” That’s what it was. It’s short, it’s set up in a certain way, and that’s it. And it’s that little contribution—to alter it too much, didn’t seem to be necessary. We had nothing like it in the show anyway. So, there was no need to change it.
JP: The reality is, when you’re pacing a show or a set, you want to play different kinds of rhythms. And, we didn’t have kind of a country shit-kicker, so it’s a fun groove and it’s nice to be able to play it like that. And, you know, there are certainly areas where we open it up and we can jam a little bit, and, of course, we kind of do it our own way. But, some of it is just having the freedom within the players here. There are so many rhythmic possibilities with this band. I mean, not to compare, but put it this way: the background of this band is more rhythmically diverse than the Grateful Dead. So, with all of those choices, it’s nice to take some different ideas for rhythms and grooves. And, you know, some of the ideas I came up with thinking, “Wow—I bet Billy [Cobham] would play the shit out of this, kind of this way.” And, you come up with the idea and then it kind of morphs somewhere else when everybody starts really playing it. So, we all kind show each other where it’s going to go.
To change gears a little bit, how has the response been from the Grateful Dead organization, if any?
BC: Not to my knowledge. Which is maybe a good thing: nobody’s said anything bad. [Laughs]
Would it matter if they had a problem with it?
BC: I think that it would matter morally to us if they did not care for what we were doing. If they said we weren’t, you know, being respectful to their music, of course it would matter.
JP: Yeah, I mean Phil [Lesh] is aware of Jazz is Dead. And, Jimmy Herring, who was the original guitar player in the band, was the guitar player I was touring with, with Phil Lesh. So, Jimmy wasn’t actually sure if it would be received well but, when we were all together, I remember a day where Phil mentioned how much he enjoyed the fact that that was going on. My guess is that they’re not listening to Jazz is Dead records every day, but the fact that it’s happening...I mean, just the fact that people can celebrate music instead of doing other stuff. Music has this amazing ability to bring community together, so the interesting thing in this band is the cross-section of bringing Deadheads together, of bringing jazz-fusion aficionados together, of bringing people who just like music. And, all of us have played in a lot of different bands so there’ll be people who just come out to see Billy Cobham, there’ll be people that come out to see Kenny Gradney, and people who come out to see what Billy Cobham and Kenny Gradney sound like together. And, all of us have done this long enough, so it’s really fun. It’s like a bouillabaisse: it’s all these different spices being put together. It’s a lot of fun.
Why do you think that the Dead’s music translates so well to jazz? I know a lot of the music has jazz elements in it...
BC: They’re highly intellectual people. They may look one way but they’re not...These guys are not stupid—they sit back and they think a lot about what’s going on. Otherwise, they could have never sustained themselves for so long.
You guys obviously have the ability to just get out there on stage and go with it, but how much pre-planning or rehearsal goes into a tour like this?
BC: Jeff has done a lot of pre-planning. And, then we just sit back and go, “Yes” or “No.” You know, we think it might work this way or that way, but basically, it’s really just fine-tuning. I mean sometimes it’s important, even with a cooperative organization, to have someone who is dedicated or assigned to take care of a specific area. And, you have to have enough faith in the individual to feel that that’s where it should be going. It’s pretty logical stuff. That’s why you have boards of directors...
JP: And, it also has to do with being lucky in putting a chemistry together when you really don’t know how it’s going to work. It’s been a very natural—it feels like a very natural, honest collaboration...You know, everybody brings in their gift. Just like a whole table sitting around having a great conversation, it’s the same thing when we get onstage. Everyone’s conversing, and we all are talking about the same kind of message.
BC: And the conversation is basically on the stage. There’s no need to talk as much as there is to act—to play. When you play, you understand what works and what doesn’t work, and why. And then you make the adjustments. When you talk, you’re speculating on what might work and interpreting how you feel could be the situation. But, until you play, you’ll never know that.
Do you find that the performances change a lot from night to night?
BC: Every night.
JP: It’s never played the same way twice.
BC: That’s because also the band is going through changes itself. In becoming more and more comfortable on an individual and collective basis.
JP: Plus, when you’re playing music like this, you’re in a spontaneous arena. It's not, “Okay, we’re going to recreate this song and play the same way as it is on the record or whatever.” This is about playing the moment. So, what happened to you that morning, or who you talked to on the phone, or who you heard died, or whatever it is—that comes out in your music. So, it becomes a very honest representation of where everyone is and also the synergy that exists between all of the players. It doesn’t get any better than that.
You guys have been in the business for decades. You’ve worked with a lot of bands and musicians. How is this different, or is it different, from past collaborations you’ve had?
BC: No, it’s not different. There’s a certain kind of routine that we fall into. Everyone knows everybody and, generally speaking, knows what our parameters are, and try to work within them to be effective as a group. More so now as we get older than when we were younger. The main reason for that situation is that one of the last lessons you learn in life is how to be a team player. When you’re younger, you’re trying to compete with everybody around you, to show how much better you are than them in your respective environment. And, that hinders you from becoming as effective as you could be because, you know, you want to be a leader, even though you may not be molded to be that. So, therefore, it’s easier now than it was before.
JP: To me, music has been my true school. In fact, I quit school in high school to play music. I arrived at school one day and they were taking apart a frog, and it’s like, “Is this what I want to learn? No.” What I want to learn is what you learn every time you are in an ensemble. Each player has his own story and everything that’s happened to him in his life—that affects the music. So, every band is a unique combination of energy and spirit. And so, to me, this band is like taking a college course in Grateful Dead music but also in playing with guys who were once my heroes and are now my peers—and still heroes.
Lastly, are there any plans set up for after this tour? Any talk of what you guys might be doing down the road, or is that just up in the air?
BC: Up in the air at the moment.
JP: We know we’ll be playing music as long as we can breathe—that’s the plan.
But, you guys have mentioned that this tour’s been going well. Hopefully, there’ll be more?
JP: In life, there’s no guarantees but you have your dreams and you have your intentions. It seems like I used to really worry about trying to set up everything, but sometimes things just kind of happen on their own if they’re meant to happen. You have to have faith that you’re doing the things you’re supposed to do in life.
[End of interview]
After this interesting interview, I was really looking forward to the show. I took a look around the place right before the band took the stage. There were many Deadheads, as you’d expect. However, it was an interesting mix of fans with many older people in attendance as well. I suspect that many people were drawn there not because they like the Dead’s music, but rather to hear such talented musicians play together in combination. It really underscored the fact that this is a jazz-fusion band that happens to play the Dead’s music, as opposed to a Dead cover band that happens to play jazz.
When the band members eventually ambled onto stage, they were received warmly by the crowd. They chose to start things off with a blistering “Mr. Charlie.” This was a surprising choice because you wouldn’t think that a Pigpen tune like this would work with this musical approach. However, they played it well, using a full-throttle jazzy blues to get the show off on the right foot. As with most of the songs they play, it’s hard to recognize the song right off the bat. They don’t play the melody and bass lines exactly like the Dead versions. Instead, they adopt one of the main themes of the song, whether it be a line of vocals, a guitar line, or a bass line, and gradually bring it out the sound of it. For example, for the second song, “Scarlet Begonias,” they began with some bass from Gradney that was very reminiscent of a Little Feat song, then Pevar introduced some great slide guitar. Then, the band slid into the recognizable melody played so exquisitely by Jerry Garcia on the original. In the middle, where the “Heart of Gold Band” section would’ve been found on the Dead version, the band let Cobham loose for a long drum solo that really showed off his talent. “China Cat Sunflower” was next, and they played it as a funk explosion with heavy keyboards and searing fusion guitar. After a long version that included a Caribbean-sounding keys solo by Lavitz, Cobham began an extended drum solo on his massive signature drum kit while the rest of the band left the stage and watched in awe from the side. After this solo, that went from raucous to delicate playing and everything in between, everyone could see why Cobham is such a legendary drummer. Once the rest of the band returned, they got things going again and led into a spirited version of “I Know You Rider” to cap off the medley. This one really illustrated the band’s point that they were involved in a musical conversation. They constantly used eye contact and their ears to guide them through changes and transitions, rather than relying on sheet music or some rigid method of playing. Thus, their style of playing is fresh and produces a different-sounding show each night, even though they’re using the same basic set list.
With “Sugar Magnolia,” the band gave the song a countryish sound and ran with it. The song turned into a New Orleans swamp number that had the unmistakable imprint of Gradney, the Little Feat veteran. After a nice build-up, they finished the song with an uplifting “Sunshine Daydream.” Next, the band played a great version of “Jack Straw.” They began with a beautiful keyboard intro by Lavitz and then the other three joined in. The band really made the song their own as they turned it into an utterly beautiful modern jazz ballad. The song gave Pevar a chance to stretch out musically. He’s got a very unconventional style of playing, reminiscent of a painter who splashes the canvas here and there to add color. Yet, he doesn’t add a lot of effects to his guitar—choosing instead to leave the guitar sounding clean for the most part, with a little reverb and distortion added at times. Now, when he needs to, he can “shred” on the guitar like the best of them, playing some of the fastest guitar runs you’ve ever seen. In fact, each of the band members is an expressive player who throws a lot of his unique musical perspective into the mix during each song.
As the band promised during the interview, they kept “Cumberland Blues” largely intact, preserving its country-rock tempo and feel. However, Pevar did add some souped-up fast blues guitar that had a hillbilly twang to it. There was even a little bit of funk thrown in as the guitar and keys imitated the vocals from the song. Next came a majestic version of “Morning Dew.” This was probably the best song of the night. The song began with some haunting keys from Lavitz, followed by some delicate guitar fills from Pevar and soft drum accents from Cobham. There was also a nice melodic bass solo from Gradney, as every band member got his chance to shine on this one. Following this sublime version, the crowd gave a deserved standing ovation. Next, the band changed gears by playing “Tennessee Jed.” This song had a Bayou boogie feel that made it sound like something you’d hear on Bourbon Street. In fact, Lavitz’s digital piano solo sounded a lot like something Professor Longhair would’ve played. The crowd responded very favorably to this spin on the popular Dead tune. Then, things got a little crazy as the band launched into a funky and frenetic version of “One More Saturday Night.” They played this one on all cylinders, choosing to take the Dead’s lead and treat it as a rocking show closer. The audience responded with a standing ovation as the band thanked the crowd and left the stage.
The band returned with smiles on their faces, obviously touched at the great response from the crowd. They veered from the program slightly by playing “Dark Star,” a tune not on Europe ’72. However, the Dead did play the song many times on that European tour even if it didn’t make it on to the release. Either way, the crowd was very happy with the choice. They began with some jazzy keyboards from Lavitz and then Pevar and Gradney joined in with some grooving guitar and bass parts. The jamming here gave the song a really good modern sound without departing too much from the song’s main structure as Pevar played the main Garcia melody to a tee. After some great improvisational playing by all band members, complete with soaring crescendos and incredible soloing by Pevar, the band brought things back to Earth with a traditional jazz finish. It’s clear that the band was comfortable with this song, as they should be since it appeared on their previous release entitled Blue Light Rain. The band left the stage after yet another standing ovation. They delighted the crowd by returning for a second encore with “Truckin’.” This was a heavy blues version with some inspired lap slide guitar by Pevar and another great solo from Cobham. The band had definitely given the crowd its money’s worth with about two hours of solid playing without a break.
There have been other band members in Jazz is Dead over the years but, as far as I’m concerned, this is the best lineup one could dream up to carry out their ambitious goal. However, it’s unclear whether a group of all-star musicians like this will be able to continue working together with so many other projects beckoning them. So, catch this lineup before their current nationwide tour ends and you, too, will hear the Dead as you’ve never imagined.
Images Courtesy of jazzisdead.com
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