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Being Grateful: Defining the Jazz Years Part One - 1973

Jacob Hobson By

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Jazz, like the Grateful Dead, has never been particularly easy to define. It seems jazz, in its most simply defined meaning, is improvised music. The Grateful Dead have been called a thousand different things since its official formation in 1965, but has rarely been called a jazz band. There have always been and will always be heated debates about which years were the best, which tone of Jerry Garcia's was the best, which keyboardist was the best. I've heard it all: endless interpretations and conversations that go on for hours at college parties and crowded parking lots of Phish and Widespread Panic shows: "The Drug Years," "The Heineken Years," "The Best Years," "The Worst Years" etc. For many, the Dead's career gets divided by decade as the band's lineage conveniently splits itself, for the most part, into neat categories with different pianists/organists being the dividing line: Pigpen Ron McKern and Tom Constanten in the 1960s, Keith Godchaux, in the 1970s, Brent Mydland in the 1980s, and Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby in the 1990s. This first installment of "Being Grateful" focuses on a post 1960s Dead in an attempt to examine why 1973 is one of the band's most jazz heavy years.

The 1960s and the acid tests with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady and the Pranksters living all out beatnik, glow paint, tie-dye inventing, flute playing, Kerouac envying, free- loving lifestyles had given the Dead, formerly the Warlocks, a chance to discover themselves and their potential as an improvising unit without too much, if any, negative criticism coming from the fans. These early years of risk and self development eventually led the band to the famed 1972 Europe tour that had them sounding tighter and cleaner than ever before. The 1960s and early 1970s had readied the band for a new, more adventurous sound, and in returning home from Europe their musical and improvisational creativity exploded, creating one of the best and most risk taking years in the Dead's career: 1973.

The emerging bands and albums surrounding the Grateful Dead in the early 1970s had to have had an influence on the band's expanding sound: In 1971 the Mahavishnu Orchestra released their first album Inner Mounting Flame, by 1973 Weather Report had already released three albums including Sweetnighter the same year, Miles Davis' Bitches Brew had come out in 1970, and John Coltrane had died a few years earlier in 1967 leaving behind numerous avant-garde albums. Dead biographers never point directly to any of these albums as influences, although Phil Lesh has talked about the importance of Coltrane in dealing with the Dead's evolving sound, but like Percy Shelley wrote in 1821, "it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age." Even though the band pointed to bluegrass, rock n' roll, and blues as primary influences, by 1973 the surrounding spirit of funk and jazz fusion had entered the soul of the Grateful Dead.

After Pigpen's departure from the Dead in 1972 the band had developed into a freer, more exploratory band. I hesitate to make any claim that the Dead were ever anything but free-form, but 1973 brought with it a more comfortable Keith Godchaux, a cymbal heavy Bill Kreutzman, and some of the longer sets of the band's thirty year career. There's no polite way to say that the band's music improved artistically and stylistically after Pigpen's death, but Pigpen was a blues man and the Dead were looking to tread deeper and more fiercely into the complex melodic improvisations found more in jazz and fusion than in the rock n' roll and blues of their day . Members of the band have repeatedly talked about the fact that Pigpen didn't mind to sit out during the extended exploratory jams, but that had to have taken a toll on the band and created some sort of mixed feelings. Whatever the feelings, I've always thought the 1972 tour held a bit of timidity and reservation in terms of improvisation; of course I can't speak for the band, only for the music and of the footage of the Europe tour with a weathered Pigpen sitting, sunken-faced and red-eyed, behind the B-3 adding a touch of color to the jams here and there and only singing a few numbers. In Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead by David Gans and Peter Simon, Garcia speaks on a post Pigpen band: "It's not a question of better of worse—it's just different. Getting Keith [Godchaux], we became a different band."

While 1972 is one of the most celebrated years in the Dead's canon, it's about as "hit" heavy as the Dead ever got, hit heavy in that many of the songs from that year are shorter and more reserved. Of course there's nothing wrong with that as the music was as fruitful and original as ever. This is a common scenario amongst improvisers: an example being Miles Davis who went from Someday My Prince Will Come to Bitches Brew in the same decade. If a musician is willing to maintain a lasting career, originality and risk must be a driving force. It's like when John Lennon said he didn't want to be singing "She Loves You" when he's thirty: people grow up and the music should too.

Now, about 1973. On December 6 near the end of a evenly mixed hard rockin,' cowboy style set, the band broke into one of the most inspired and tumultuous "Darkstars" on tape. Other "Darkstars" rival in comparison: the Capitol Theater show on February 18, 1971 being a strong contender for the top ten. These two versions of the same song present a good example of the band's developing sound. The 1971 version is much shorter with more focus on maintaining a coherent riff throughout; it also comes relatively early in the set and they wedge a polite "Wharf Rat" in the center: a nasty jam I'll admit, but it's more rock n' roll than jazz. Jerry comes in with the vocals about three minutes into the jam, where as on the 1973 set he comes in with the vocals around twenty-five minutes in: a good indicator of the willingness of the band to dig that night.

Keith is in rare form on the 1973 set, as he was for most of the year, leading the jam on the Fender Rhodes that he introduced into his setup a few months prior. Apparently Keith—like Brent Mydland a few years later—was plagued with some sort of insecurity that often held him back musically and creatively, eventually leading to his annoying trademark of the late 70s in which he simply repeated Garcia's lines on the piano: although impressive, it makes for boring music. In 1973, however, Godchaux and Phil Lesh were a hard driving, madness inducing duo leading the band throughout the entire "Darkstar," circling around Garcia and Weir like the wicked witch of the west in the tornado scene. Weir is Dorothy resting on the bed with those massive, complementing chords, Garcia is Toto barking at the storm—knowing it's out there—adding to the madness. Kreutzmen's the house holding it all together: the centerpiece, the mantle, the mortar keeping the bricks together, the symbol his mightiest tool. Phil is dropping deep, witch-like-grumbling bombs throughout and Keith has found a somewhat clashing, beautifully mixed set of jazz chords and runs that are refreshingly outside of his normal ragtime, honky-tonk rhythms. Keith remains in that deep Rhodes, Herbie Hancock, style—sustaining rhythm throughout the jam—while Jerry hovers high above with bird like lines. I get the same feeling on Charlie Parker's string albums or Jimmy Smith's big band albums: all three musicians had the ability to be part of a well blended music but still manage to sound physically "above" the rest of the band.

The "Here Comes Sunshine" from the same night clocking in at around sixteen minutes is a real barn burner and a must-listen. Another highlight show for Keith in 1973 is the Roosevelt Stadium show from July 31. The twenty-three minute "Playing in the Band" has Keith getting funky on Rhodes again, Jerry on the distorted wah, with Kreutzman, without Mickey Hart to get heavy on the toms, picking up his former and soon to be band mates' trademark pounding the deeper toms, and in short stints, has the band sounding like a Billy Cobham lineup. The Dead that comes after 1973 got them through 1974 as well as short-lived hiatus and eventually into the celebrated 1977 tour. It's hard to pinpoint an official set or song or jam that allowed the Dead to become the powerhouse they were in 1977, but 1973 and the extended jams from that year like the December 6 "Darkstar" sure seem likely contenders. Like Oceanographers and their field of study, people who love the Dead are dealing with a band that is deep and mysterious with a thousand different dynamics, a million different critics, and a certain unexplainable mystique that continues to intrigue all who enter it. 1973 and the music created that year were a launching pad for the band's post-Pigpen sound and eventually led them into another jazz heavy year and the next installment of "Being Grateful": 1982.

Photo Credit: Snooky Flowers


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