Laughing Water

Jazz Is Dead

Zebra Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


One of the most difficult things for any artist to do is to try and breathe new life into material that isn't that solid to begin with. It's hard enough for someone to redo a song that has become a favorite, but at least choosing such a number stacks the cards in their favor.

Item: I personally don't care for Wake Of The Flood, the 1973 release from the Grateful Dead. (Okay, now I've opened the floodgates for flame mail.) While there are some songs on the album I enjoy, there are others that just are listless, and I look forward to listening to this album nearly as much as I look forward to a root canal without novicaine.

So it's interesting that Jazz Is Dead, a group of some of the genre's best (if not necessarily best-known) musicians, would choose to redo the entire Wake Of The Flood album in their own style. The end result, Laughing Water, has its moments, but still is unable to breathe a lot of life into the plodding material - but that's not due to lack of trying.

The group - guitarist Jimmy Herring, bassist Alphonso Johnson, keyboardist T Lavitz and drummers Rod Morgenstein and Jeff Sipe (who split the responsibilities behind the kit) - are more than technically sound musicians. Each member does bring their own unique spark of creativity and excitement to this project. Herring is an incredible guitarist, and when Johnson is given the chance for his solo on "Eyes Of The World" and "Two Sisters" (the tracks flow together as one), he reminds me a lot of Phil Lesh in his playing.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

It would be too easy for me to say that Herring is no Jerry Garcia; frankly, I don't think Herring ever wanted to mimic the sound of the late guitarist for the Dead, and wanted to give the material his own unique signature. But more often than not, the material on Laughing Water calls for a more gentle sonic attack from the guitar, and not a crisp, sharp rendition. I'll give Herring credit for trying; he stepped into some of the toughest shoes a guitarist could ever dream of filling.

Jazz Is Dead is augmented by the addition of some wonderful guest musicians. Violinist Vassar Clements (who played on the original Wake Of The Flood) reprises his role, and his work on "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo" makes it feel like it's 1973 again. Donna Jean Godchaux, who was a member of the Dead at the time of Wake Of The Flood, briefly makes an appearance on two vocal intros - the only time vocals are heard throughout this project. Unfortunately, she is not used enough, and I would have liked to have heard her sing more. Also making contributions to the project are guitarists Steve Kimock and Derek Trucks.

I'll give Jazz Is Dead credit: they do breathe a little life into "Let Me Sing Your Blues Away," one of my least favorite Dead tracks ever. But they can't make something great out of something so mediocre in its basis. Likewise, "Stella Blue" just seems to sag, thanks to its melancholic design, and no amount of musical fireworks are going to light this one on fire.

Still, Jazz Is Dead holds their own on tracks like "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo," "Eyes Of The World" and "Row Jimmy", though it might take some long-time Deadheads to warm up to the new (maybe I should say modified) arrangements of these songs.

I will admit a little disappointment in that Jazz Is Dead didn't try to make some of these performances a little more jazzy. "Eyes Of The World" is a track that begged for the liberation of such a style, and while its performance doesn't disappoint in general, there still is an aura of what could have been with this one.

Laughing Water will undoubtedly be a treasure trove if you're one of the fans of the Dead who lived Wake Of The Flood. For others, it's a strange choice of the Dead's catalog to cover, and while it's musically sound, Jazz Is Dead just aren't magicians when it comes to making the already-dragging material come to life.

Rating: C+

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© 1999 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Zebra Records, and is used for informational purposes only.