Jazz is Dead
Great Sky River
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2001, Volume 8, #10
Written by John Metzger
The Grateful Dead's vast catalog lends itself quite nicely to jazz-oriented interpretations. Several years ago, saxophone player David Murray more than proved this with his stellar collection Dark Star: The Music of the Grateful Dead. So why is it that no one else has seen fit to follow in his footsteps? When Jazz is Dead began recording and touring, it seemed reasonable enough to assume that its all-star cast — which includes guitarist Jimmy Herring (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Allman Brothers Band), bass player Alphonso Johnson (Weather Report), keyboard player T. Lavitz (Dixie Dregs), and percussionist Rod Morgenstein — might make some interesting forays in this direction.
Alas, this has not been the case. Jazz is Dead's third release Great Sky River continues the group's tendency towards delivering typically stoic jam band regurgitations (albeit with greater technical proficiency) instead of crafting stately declarations. This certainly has nothing to do with song selection as on this outing the band tackles China Cat Sunflower, Estimated Prophet, Terrapin Station, Morning Dew, Blues for Allah, St. Stephen, and The Eleven — a list that's sure to please just about any fan of the Grateful Dead. In addition, Jazz is Dead refused to succumb to the same studio tedium that sometimes plagued its subject, turning once again to a live setting for its recording.
This is not to say that Great Sky River doesn't have its moments. Jazz is Dead is, after all, somewhat of a supergroup of talent. At times, Herring's guitar burns with fire, Lavitz's keyboards spiral and swirl, Johnson's bass vibrantly bubbles and bounces, and Morgenstein's percussive grooves serve to bring the songs to a slow broil. Just when the band begins to hit to its stride, however, the songs wind up falling flat. Herring is too quick to rattle off a volley of notes in machine-gun fashion (à la Joe Satriani or Steve Vai), Johnson and Morgenstein too easily relegate themselves to a standard rock rhythm section, and Lavitz too often slips into the distant background. As a result, the communication and interplay among the musicians becomes rote and their collective performance is only mildly entertaining. Indeed, there's so much more funk-instrumental-guitar-rock than jazz on display here that one must wonder if the band has begun to take its name literally.
Great Sky River is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box