Jazz Is Dead is a somewhat misleading name for the quintet that specializes in instrumental versions of Grateful Dead songs. While it's true that bassist Alphonso Johnson is an alumnus of the landmark jazz band Weather Report, and while it's true that Jazz Is Dead is quite free-wheeling in its interpretations, their vocabulary is not the swing rhythms, blues structures and substitute chords of jazz. Instead they rely on the rolling 4/4 beat, wave-like surges and pop melodies of improvisatory rock. This is nothing to apologize for, because jam-rock has much to offer, and Jazz Is Dead does it better than most.
The second Jazz Is Dead release, "Laughing Water," reprises all seven compositions from the Grateful Dead's 1973 album, "Wake of the Flood," in the original sequence. There's plenty of juicy melodic material here, especially on such Jerry Garcia tunes as "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo" and "Row Jimmy." Jazz Is Dead guitarist Jimmy Herring (formerly of the Aquarium Rescue Unit) is able to capture both the vocal line and the lead-guitar line and then weave them into something entirely new.
Recorded in front of audiences over four nights in Boulder, Colo. and San Francisco this past April, "Laughing Water" has the give-and-take of a good live show. Original drummer Billy Cobham has been replaced by Jeff Sipe (Leftover Salmon) and Rod Morgenstein (Dixie Dregs); keyboardist T. Lavitz (Dixie Dregs) fills out the current Jazz Is Dead lineup. For this project, the guests include vocalist Donna Godchaux and fiddler Vassar Clements (who both appeared on the original "Wake of the Flood") as well as guitarists Steve Kimock and Derek Trucks.
Appearing Sunday at the 9:30 club with Vince Wellnick and Missing Man Formation. To hear a free Sound Bite from Jazz Is Dead, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8105. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)