Essentially a Grateful Dead repertory ensemble, Jazz Is Dead boasts a fusion dream lineup: T. Lavitz on keyboards, Alphonso Johnson on bass, Rod Morgenstein (or Jeff Sipe) on drums, and rising star Jimmy Herring on guitar. If you like the Grateful Dead and know their songs, you'll probably warm to this disc. If you don't, you might still find it rewarding. The musicianship is top-notch and the recording sounds sharp (it was taken from live shows in Colorado and California). I don't know what it has to do with "jazz," but that's another discussion.
The Dead wrote some brilliant songs, displayed an admirable creative evolution (up to a point), and were in a class by themselves when it came to playing live (up to a point). But the quasi-religious devotion of many of their fans was (and is) hard to take. And the countless present-day attempts to cash in on the band's legacy seem more about marketing than music.
Viewed in this context, Jazz Is Dead's efforts are a little harder to take seriously. I can understand why a group of fusioners would follow this course: unlike most fusion, reworked Grateful Dead material is virtually guaranteed a fairly sizable audience. Reach out to the Grateful Dead fan base, broadly defined, and the rest takes care of itself. The marketing is built into the musical concept itself. I'm glad the band members will have food on their tables, but let's face it: it's an artistic cop-out.
Some of this stuff sounds great, though. I wish the Dead had played it as well as these guys do. Hearing Lavitz and company tackle these songs, one discovers anew some of the Dead's musical virtues. Take a listen to the odd phrasing and melodic lilt of "Row Jimmy," particularly in the verse; or the harmonic richness of "Stella Blue," one of the Dead's best songs. Guitarist Herring is a hot soloist throughout. Lavitz is also impressive, mining all the harmonic possibilities of the songs. Johnson shines on "Eyes of the World" and Morgenstein lets loose on the final track, "Let it Grow."
But after this group has managed to cover every Grateful Dead tune, what then? Will they keep touring until they're well past their prime, like some other bands we've known?