The truth can now be told: Jazz made me a Deadhead.
Classical, bluegrass, world beat, to be sure, all played a role in the process. But I truly believe jazz bears the primary responsibility for filling my head with a yearning for 18-minute-long renditions of “Franklin’s Tower.”
I say that because it was only after two-plus decades of absorbing jazz with its emphasis on intricate composition, extended soloing and complex rhythms and harmonies that I could truly embrace the Dead’s ethos.
As befits a word man, much of my focus as a pop-rock consumer over the years had been on lyrics – Dylan, Beatles, Springsteen, ‘70s singer-songwriters, that sort of thing. And, certainly, the Dead both in the company of Robert Hunter and otherwise are no slouches in that department. But it took me developing an ear for jazz’s lengthy instrumentals packed with breath-taking soloing to truly tune me into the Dead.
All of which shows you’re never too old to learn, to adapt, to discover.
By the way, Bay Area Deadheads and wannabes should check out Stu Allen and Mars Hotel, which has been in weekly residency at Ashkenaz in Berkeley since late 2011. Indeed, the ensemble marks its 100th Ashkenaz performance on April 4.
Led by acclaimed guitarist-singer Allen (of Phil Lesh and Friends, Melvin Seals & JGB, Ghosts of Electricity), a revolving cast of incredibly talented musicians inhabits Mars Hotel, drawing from the Grateful Dead’s vast catalog to delight Deadheads and dancers of all generations. A Mars Hotel show is always an energetic evening of good vibes, good music, and good community. Allen shares the Grateful Dead’s commitment to making each performance a unique event, from preparation to execution. He will perform multiple shows before playing the same song twice, and even then, that song will not be realized in quite the same way. Mars Hotel takes this idea a step further by presenting a new band at each performance. Drawing from the rich music scene of the Bay Area, Allen has assembled a broad and ever-rotating group of musicians that makes each concert a once-only experience. As far as Grateful Dead tribute bands go, this is a concept that has never been done before.
I am not the first person to have this musical epiphany or the first to explore the connections between jazz and the Dead. The band Jazz is Dead has been performing for years. We’re talking prime talent too – the group’s original lineup consisted of Jimmy Herring (guitar), Alphonso Johnson (bass), Billy Cobham (drums) and T Lavitz (keyboards). Their discography includes “Blue Light Rain” (1998), “Laughing Water” (1999) and “Great Sky River” (2001). Also check out the David Murray Octet’s “Dark Star: The Music of The Grateful Dead” (1996).
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