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Published: 2001/10/19
by Chris Gardner

Great Sky River – Jazz Is Dead

Zebra Records 44023-2

You can wander downtown in any major city on a Wednesday night and watch a collective of good-hearted, well-intentioned devotees wank-wank-noodle their way through a set of Grateful Dead originals and even hear a few covers of covers the Dead did. Barring that, you can meander down to your kindest local vendor and pick up the newest Dead tribute album or collection of songs inspired by the Dead or bluegrass tribute to the Dead or collection of original tunes covered by the Dead or reggae tribute to the Dead or recently unearthed rare four-track of Jerry and friends that fell into the hands of the Domino's guy or the freshest crispy soundboard release from the archives or… and so on and so on. If all this doesn't slake your thirst for all things Dead, you can wait for the Illuminati to roll through and sink you teeth into an well-charted Terrapin or hold out and play "Name That Dead Show" with the Dark Star Orchestra.

Can the market be saturated? Seemingly, no. So the question for each of
these offerings becomes, "Is this release simply juicing the Dead name
for a cheap buck, or is this a vital extension of the Dead legacy?" The
answer for "Great Sky River" is an equivocal "yes".

Sure, the track records of the players (T Lavitz, Alphonso Johnson, Rod Morganstein, and Jimmy Herring) are solid enough, and the jams are extensive and often fluid. But the setlist is staid, with only the briefest of sojourns into Blues For Allah straying from the predictable. And all the takes are straight — few clever stylistic reworkings or altered time signatures here. Despite the title, the disc is no jazzier than the Dead themselves. In fact, the live set – riddled with explosive and emotive, hard-edged solos from Herring – is far more rock n' roll than jazz or even the Dead themselves. Talent alone pegs this above your downtown devotees.

In short, this well-packaged release leeches off a legacy with its eye on
those loose bills in your wallet, adding to a long list of projects that
suskle the suckers who can't ever get enough Dead. None of that changes
the fact that my arm hairs stand on edge every time I hear Jimmy lead into
St. Stephen or flow into Morning Dew. Despite my theoretical
objections to the insidious practice, I am in there mucking in the mud, shoving suckers
aside and grappling for the teat.

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