Tribute albums became very popular in the 1990s, but the members of Jazz Is Dead sidestepped the accompanying clichés of most tributes with their 1998 Grateful Dead concept CD Blue Light Rain. The four jazz fusion veterans -- bassist Alphonso Johnson (Weather Report), keyboardist T Lavitz (Dixie Dregs), guitarist Jimmy Herring (Aquarium Rescue Unit), and drummer Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra) -- performed instrumental versions of Grateful Dead classics, at once showing the influence of jazz fusion on the Dead and the quartet's playing and arranging prowess. Cobham, Johnson, and Lavitz were known commodities through their previous band affiliations, but Blue Light Rain proved to be a coming-out party for Herring. A player of immense skill who had subbed for Dickey Betts in the Allman Brothers, Herring was nonetheless underrated through the relative anonymity of his primary groups, Aquarium Rescue Unit and Frogwings. On tracks like "Crazy Fingers," "Dark Star," and the closing, live "Blues for Allah Medley," Herring soars over Lavitz's tasty keyboard work and the rhythmic muscle of Johnson and Cobham.
For their next CD, Jazz Is Dead chose to interpret the Grateful Dead's 1973 Wake of the Flood album in its entirety. Cobham's departure opened the door for two drummers -- Jeff Sipe and Rod Morgenstein -- who played separately and together during the four nights of recording. Vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux reprised some of her original vocal intros for the Dead; guest violinist Vassar Clements ("Sunshine Jam") and guitarists Steve Kimock ("Stella Blue") and Derek Trucks ("Row Jimmy") add icing to some of the Dead's most jazz-influenced pieces. With a near-endless Grateful Dead discography to pick from, Jazz Is Dead has the talent and material to become one of the world's most popular and original cover bands. ~ Bill Meredith