Jazz is Dead, fans are grateful

January 29, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Don't get the wrong idea. When bassist Alphonso Johnson and his bandmates insist that "Jazz Is Dead," they don't mean "dead" as in "deceased." They mean "Dead" as in "Grateful."

Johnson and the Jazz Is Dead crew -- drummer Billy Cobham, keyboardist T. Lavitz and guitarist Jimmy Herring -- are touring behind the interesting idea that Grateful Dead songs would be good material for a jazz band to jam on. As Johnson explains, the idea was first floated by booking agent Michael Gaiman.

"He asked me if I would be interested in playing with Billy Cobham," Johnson recalls. "I said, 'Of course.' Billy and I have been staying in touch over the years and had been talking about trying to do something together.

"So [Gaiman] told me about the project, told me it was called 'Jazz Is Dead.' "

What was Johnson's reaction? "I laughed," he answers.

But not for long. "Basically, it works," says Johnson. "We rehearsed for three days, then went to our first gig. And after our first gig, I think we all kind of knew this is really going to be a nice little adventure."

Of the four, only Herring -- a member of the Aquarium Rescue Unit and a familiar face on the last few H.O.R.D.E. tours -- seems an obvious choice for a Dead-oriented show. Johnson, after all, made his name with the fusion group Weather Report; Cobham drummed with both Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra; and Lavitz came to prominence with the Dixie Dregs.

But there is a connection there, says Johnson, who admits to being something of a Grateful Dead fan. "Not in the sense of being a Deadhead," he says, laughing. "But in the sense that Billy and I spent some time touring and playing with [Grateful Dead guitarist] Bobby Weir. We did the Bobby & the Midnights album together and spent pretty much a year playing in that band."

Johnson also paid attention to what bassist Phil Lesh played JTC with the Dead. "Just like I followed Ron Carter with Miles Davis, or Paul McCartney with the Beatles," he says.

Since heading out on the Jazz Is Dead tour, Johnson has developed a finer appreciation of the Dead's music. "These are great songs," he says. "I didn't fully appreciate these songs until we got to rehearsal, and they're really, really interesting songs to play." He has also been surprised at the kind of audiences the tour has reached. "It's a nice mix of Grateful Dead fans, fusion fans and jazz fans," he says. "I even see a lot of young, alternative rock fans in the audience. It's really interesting."

Mainly, though, he appreciates how lively the playing has been on these Jazz Is Dead shows. So far, no two shows have been alike. "Without fail, almost every night, we've added a new song," he says. "We'll talk onstage, like musicians used to do, about what [song] we want to do next."

Best of all, he says, the audiences seem to enjoy the group's seat-of-its-pants spontaneity. "They seem to appreciate the fact that we're doing it in the moment," says Johnson. "I think it kind of makes them seem more a part of it."

Jazz Is Dead

When: Monday, 7 p.m. and 9: 30 p.m.

Where: Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St., Annapolis

Tickets: $21

Call: 410-481-7328 for tickets, 410-268-4545 for information

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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