More Dead (as in Grateful) than Jazz in its truest sense of the words, this revolving improvisational unit of rock and fusion vets concentrates on the music of the Dead’s two most enduring albums, “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty.” As this experiment, which has had some fascinating triumphs, heads into its third album for the Zebra label, its focus suddenly comes into question: Are these tunes meaty enough to stand on their own as instrumental vehicles, and do the musicians have enough of a personal presentation to bring to the music?
By limiting itself to the Dead’s golden recording period, Jazz Is Dead sets out on a trail of country rock material and the most compact writing of the Dead’s career, the bulk of it from Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia.
These are not the sweeping works that filled the Dead albums “Blues for Allah,” “Wake of the Flood” or “Terrapin Station” –used for Jazz Is Dead launching points — nor do they have the hint of funkiness that infused numbers such as “Shakedown Street.” (For a Grateful Dead jazz project that works top to bottom, check out Joe Gallant and Illuminati’s “Blues for Allah Project” on Knitting Factory Records.)
The interpretive skills of Jeff Pevar, guitarist for CPR with David Crosby, were put to the test Monday as the quartet turned “Truckin’ ” into a freeway jam, echoing the flashy fusion jazz of the early 1970s with some slick slide guitar work.
Keyboardist T Lavitz of the Dixie Dregs was all over the map, making his most effective runs on the organ. But when songs were done straight — “Friend of the Devil” and “Cumberland Blues,” for example — they felt remarkably incomplete.
Centerpiece of the band is bassist Alfonso Johnson, who has been with the band since its inception and has been picking up crucial Dead time playing in the Other Ones, the post-Garcia collection led by the Dead’s Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and Bruce Hornsby.
In that band he fleshed out the jazzy underpinnings of much of the material and, at his best, propelled the jams into steady streams of fascinating solos.
Here he compromises his jazz resume (Weather Report) for the sake of the songs at hand. That works in the case of “Ripple,” which he also sang, but it runs counter to what should be the central intention of this “modular band,” which has at times included drummer Billy Cobham and guitarist Jimmy Herring of the Aquarium Rescue Unit.