In 1998, a studio album called Blue Light Rain by the Grateful Dead tribute quartet Jazz Is Dead (www.facebook.com/JazzIsDead.Tour) turned both the jazz/fusion and Dead worlds on their collective ears.
For that album’s 25th anniversary, and the 50th anniversary of the release of the 1973 Grateful Dead LP Wake of the Flood, a revamped Jazz Is Dead has returned from the afterlife after having flatlined since 2015.
The group’s initial lineup consisted of the all-star rhythm section of bassist Alphonso Johnson (Weather Report) and drummer Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra), plus Dixie Dregs keyboardist T Lavitz (1956-2010) and guitarist Jimmy Herring, previously of Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit and currently with Widespread Panic.
Blue Light Rain’s instrumental Grateful Dead interpretations showcased both the jazz influence inherent within that jam band’s arrangements and the beautiful-to-bombastic talents of the fusion quartet on tracks like “Dark Star,” “Crazy Fingers” and the “Blues for Allah Medley.” Johnson, Cobham and Lavitz were known commodities because of their previous affiliations, and Herring introduced himself to a wider audience through a series of scintillating updates of Grateful Dead guitar guru Jerry Garcia’s work.
It was an electric debut comparable to Jimi Hendrix’s 1970 Band of Gypsys album, and the short-lived lineup likewise didn’t last long. Subsequent releases Laughing Water and Great Sky River (both live albums) and the studio recording Grateful Jazz were captured over the next several years, eventually including a replacement guitarist (Jeff Pevar), keyboardists (Chris Smith, Tom Constanten), bassists (Kenny Gradney, Dave Livolsi) and drummers (Rod Morgenstein, Jeff Sipe).
Yet the latest in a couple of long hiatuses between 2006 and 2022 finally ended this year. That’s when Johnson, whose other recording and touring credits range from Allan Holdsworth and Chuck Mangione to Phil Collins and Santana, came back into the fold with guitarists Bobby Lee Rodgers (Codetalkers) and Steve Kimock, who appeared on Laughing Water and had played with Johnson in the 1998-2002 Grateful Dead alumni project The Other Ones.
“It didn’t take me more than about two seconds to agree to be part of this,” Kimock says by phone from his home in Bethlehem, Pa. “As soon as I heard Alphonso was in, the answer was yes.”
And in a hometown-boy-makes-good story, the new lineup’s fourth veteran musician is area drummer Pete Lavezzoli, whose own Grateful Dead tribute act Crazy Fingers goes back more than 30 years and is a South Florida institution. Having also played in Rodgers’ self-titled jazz trio since 2010, he joins an elite sequence of Jazz Is Dead drummers from Cobham (who also worked with Miles Davis and James Brown and played shows with the Grateful Dead) to Morgenstein (Dixie Dregs, Steve Morse Band, Winger) and Sipe (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Susan Tedeschi, Jeff Coffin).
“My approach in Jazz Is Dead is nothing like any of those three guys,” Lavezzoli says. “I’ve played lots of Dead material with my band as well as with several former Dead members, and my take is less in the jazz/fusion realm than in classic jazz. We don’t use stage or in-ear monitors, since we have no vocals, which makes things quieter and more dynamic like in traditional jazz. So my approach is closer to Billy Higgins, Max Roach and [founding Grateful Dead drummer] Bill Kreutzmann. In the jazz world, there’s a great deal of freedom for interpretation. And we feel the same way about the Grateful Dead, a band that we see as part of the modern Great American Songbook.”
Not only has Lavezzoli reignited the Jazz Is Dead drum chair, but he’s also played with Grateful Dead alums Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, and was the drummer for longtime Jerry Garcia Band singer/keyboardist Melvin Seals’ group from 2009-2020. So Jazz Is Dead’s longtime manager, Michael Gaiman, was familiar with the South Florida drummer.
“Michael and I had worked together in other settings,” Lavezzoli says. “He approached me about doing a new project, and Bobby Lee’s name came up, since I’d played jazz with him for over a decade. We talked to Alphonso, and he was on board, and even the one who suggested we turn it into a reunited Jazz Is Dead. Then we approached Steve, who was very excited about it.”
In The Other Ones, Johnson and Kimock played with Weir, Kreutzmann and frequent second Dead drummer Mickey Hart in a setting that showcased Kimock’s post-Garcia mix of jazz, R&B and Americana influences — a precursor to his Jazz Is Dead work. And as one of jazz/fusion history’s ultimate all-purpose rhythm section partners, Johnson can alternate between electric bass guitar, acoustic upright bass, and the 10-stringed Chapman stick depending on the Grateful Dead tune.
“It’s a different approach,” says the Philadelphia native Johnson by phone from Los Angeles, his hometown since the mid-1970s. “I can play either bass or the stick, an instrument that allows me to play chords or double the melody with Steve or Bobby. And they all know the material so well. Pete will sometimes be the one to remind us, ‘No, they went to the C minor there, and the next measure has a 5/4 bar.’ And sure enough, he’s right.”
Kimock recalls a past listening session with Johnson that reinforced how versatile and prolific the bassist actually is.
“I put on this Hermeto Pascoal album,” says Kimock, referencing the Brazilian composer, “and I’m telling Alphonso, ‘Listen to that, it’s how a bass guitar is supposed to sound and be played!’ And he looks at me and says, ‘Steve, that’s actually me playing on that record.’“
Wake of the Flood featured sing-alongs like “Row Jimmy,” “Stella Blue,” “Eyes of the World” and the appropriate, for Johnson, “Weather Report Suite” with the lineup of vocalist/guitarists Garcia and Weir, singing keyboardist Keith Godchaux, wife and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux, bassist Lesh, and drummer Kreutzmann.
“We started touring in January, and I think it exceeded all of our expectations,” says Lavezzoli. “Our opening shows in California were a revelation. They were sold out, and the audience response, enthusiasm and attentiveness went way beyond our imagination. People were singing the lyrics in unison or harmony, sometimes as loud or louder than us musically, and it’s grown from there. ‘Wake of the Flood’ was a departure, because it was the Dead’s first album without [keyboardist/vocalist] Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan [1945-1973]. So it was less grounded in blues and R&B, his foundation, and more progressive and jazz-oriented.”
Ever versatile, Rodgers alternates in Jazz Is Dead between electric guitar or six-string banjo — played through a spinning Leslie speaker cabinet usually associated with a Hammond organ — often resulting in keyboard-like textures. Jazz and classically trained, he taught at the Berklee College of Music in Boston while in his 20s, led The Codetalkers (which also featured the since-deceased Hampton on guitar and vocals) for 10 years, and plays challenging trio tribute shows to the likes of Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane. Still, Rodgers sounds like he has to pinch himself playing with Jazz Is Dead.
“I look over, see Alphonso or Steve, and ask myself what I’m doing on stage with them,” the Georgia native says by phone from Augusta. “And Pete and I have this rhythmic bond that’s psychic. But I listened to as many Jazz Is Dead and Grateful Dead recordings and live shows as I could, and just tried to figure out what I could bring to this music.”
According to the band’s lone remaining original member, Rodgers, Kimock and Lavezzoli all bring quite a bit, meaning no limitations covering the very deep Grateful Dead catalog of studio and live recordings.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I was told about the instrumentation and lack of keyboards,” Johnson says. “But I was really pleasantly surprised, not only by the playing but also the personalities matching so well. There’s more space in the music now. But Jazz Is Dead is kind of like playing with Santana was. The members change, but the music evolves and allows the brand to reinvent itself.”
“We’re bringing in new material on each leg of the tour,” says Lavezzoli, “things that we haven’t played yet. That way, we’ll gradually expand our repertoire so that, from show to show, we’ll have the variety not to repeat ourselves. Even when we play the same order of Wake of the Flood songs, we find different ways to play them each night.”
Videos of each concert appear on the band’s Facebook page, helping to make that point. Each show is recorded, so a future live album —a specialty of both the Dead and Jazz Is Dead — may be a possibility if the quartet doesn’t get into the studio.
“I love it, because there seems to be so many different degrees of freedom in the band,” Kimock says. “It feels like, at any moment, we could go anywhere with the music even though we all know the arrangements, and that’s really enjoyable.”
“I learned all of this material so that I could play it solo if I needed to,” says Rodgers. “I wanted to be able to play the chords or the melody just in case, because I knew that Steve already had this special thing and I wanted to be able to flow in and out of that. But when we first got together to rehearse, and started playing a jam, I immediately knew it would all work. We’d only played a few notes over a few seconds, but when it’s that obvious, that’s all it takes.”
If You Go
Jazz Is Dead plays at Revolution Live, 100 S.W. Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale
When: doors open 7 p.m., May 19
Tickets: $29.50 advance, $35 day of show
Info: 954-449-1030, www.jointherevolution.net