Stepping Out Of Shadows: JJ Grey’s Mofro

 

"I'll tell you one thing I'm grateful for, in this year that I turn 50, having done it for so long: I'm still excited about the projects I'm involved with, and I go 'Boy, I'm lucky.' As long as I have this attitude of excitement I know it's going to be ok."

It's positive, life-affirming statements like this that permeate my discussion with keyboardist T Lavitz. Perhaps he is right; maybe he is lucky, but there's no way luck can account for the remarkable career he's built for himself.

 

T is perhaps best known for his work with the successful jazz-rock fusion band Dixie Dregs.  As a student in the University of Miami music program — where the Dixie Dregs formed in 1975 — T was naturally a huge fan of the Dregs.  Needless to say, when the band approached him, he was beside himself.

"I was in my senior year (1978) and one of my all time favorite bands comes across my path and asks me to audition and maybe join them; seriously, they were probably in my top five favorite bands… It was a dream come true."  Forgoing his senior year was as T puts it, "a learning experience I'm sure much greater than that final year of college would have been.  I mean, instantly, we're up for a Grammy."

The Dixie Dregs would be the avenue for T to learn his trade.  The band toured heavily from 1978 until 1983 when guitarist Steve Morris pretty much pulled the plug.  Wanting to leave on a high-note with moderate interest in the band as opposed to "beating a dead horse and being forced to break up" Morris decided it would be for the best and could allow some room for a comeback down the road.

Although the Dregs would be T's most successful commercial project, a new generation of fans learned of Lavitz by his work with Widespread Panic.  For about a year, 1991-1992, T would both tour and record with Panic (supplying keys for 1991's self-titled release and even appearing on the re-release of 1988's Space Wrangler for organ on the bonus track"Me and The Devil Blues / Heaven").

When we begin to dig into his time with Widespread Panic T seems to grow a bit nostalgic, almost sad, as if he wonders what could have been.

"When I was in Widespread Panic I used to say to them, 'You know there's more to life than this!'  Cause I kept wanting to go home and they would keep booking dates, we wouldn't even really get itineraries because it would never end.  And I'd argue with them about there being more to life and they would laugh and say, 'This is our life.'  But I was probably ten years older than the average guy in that band, so I was just in a different place."

As luck, or perhaps in this case the lack of it, would have it; just after T left Panic they would adopt a less demanding tour schedule — allowing them to be home a bit more often, and they would get out of cars and into a bus: the exact requirements T needed to stay in the band.

The next few years would find the Dixie Dregs reuniting, receiving more Grammy nominations and touring off and on.  In 1996 T would join Jefferson Starship for a stint and eventually he would form Jazz is Dead in 1997.  This would mark the third major touchstone for Lavitz: the first being Dixie Dregs, the second Widespread Panic, and now Jazz is Dead.  Although there would be numerous solo releases, projects with folks like Billy Cobham and Vassar Clements (Hillbilly Funk All-Stars) and Dregs dates, it would be Jazz is Dead (with various lineups) that would remain T's focus.

The founding members, bassist Alphonso Johnson (Weather Report), guitarist Jimmy Herring (Aquarium Rescue Unit) drummer Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra) and Lavitz on keys would take the cover band and cover album idea to new heights. 

As T explains, "If you're trying to sound like the original band that's a little weird, but if you're taking their melody and chords, or lyrics melody and chords and interpreting it, then it's totally cool.  I'd like to say that's what Jazz is Dead has done and still does; we take their thing [the Grateful Dead] as a vehicle for us to play and jam."

With this mentality the band would perform instrumental versions of Grateful Dead classics showcasing both the jazz-fusion influence on the Dead's music as well as their own arranging and improvisational abilities.

With the Grateful Dead's Blues for Allah album celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, Jazz is Dead decided to regroup and tour through March.  Having frequently enjoyed the exploration of songs like "Help on the Way > Slipknot > Franklin's Tower," "King Solomon's Marbles" and "Crazy Fingers" (all of which appear on Blues for Allah) the time seemed appropriate. 

As we discuss the lineup (Jeff Pevar-guitar, Dave Livolsi-bass, Rod Morgenstein and Jeff Sipe-drums) and the manner in which they approach the material T begins to speak emphatically.  Digging into the nuts and bolts of harmony, melody and chords his words pick up pace and I can sense him smiling over the phone.  Our talk of the Jazz is Dead tour leads right into T's excitement about his latest release, last year's Boston T Party ( Tone Center).

Recorded in Boston with three heavy hitters – Dennis Chambers (drums-Santana), Jeff Berlin (bass) and Dave Fiuczynski (guitar) – the album features 10 new songs and lots of jazz-laced improv.  As T discusses the wide-ranging styles that appear on his new album we begin to stretch our conversation a bit, moving away from specific examples and into more general, broad-stroked components of his musical ethos.  As we talk about all the different projects he's done and bands he's toured with I ask him if there's any thread that seems to tie it all together, any consistency he can put his finer on?

"The year 2000 the Dixie Dregs toured with Dream Theater and Jazz is Dead was touring as well… and it was a high-point for me musically because the Dixie Dregs is orchestrated down to a note; Jazz is Dead is incredibly improvised, we probably have 45 minutes worth of material and play for two hours.  So I was really thrilled during that time because I was in two of the greatest bands and they we're both so different.  I mean I was in Jefferson Starship to Mother's Finest ('hard-core funk-rock') and they are really different, and then Billy Cobham Trio to Widespread Panic are really different, and the Dregs and Jazz Is Dead, really different. 

"What I say is, I like to play good music with good people."

In addition to Jazz is Dead and Boston T Party, Lavitz has also been busy re-issuing his solo catalogue.  T is obviously aware of the digital revolution that is sweeping across the music industry.  As vinyl turned to tape and tape to CD, soon we'll all be consuming our music digitally. 

"Well it got to the point where I had five solo CDs that are only available through things like EBay or someone having an overage of stock… And I'm of course aware of all the iTunes and downloading sites and all that.  So I started looking at the bigger companies and somebody at one of the bigger companies was telling me that they don't do direct licensing with artists anymore but he said, 'here's a company you should really look at it' and it was reapandsow.  And after talking to him [J Gibson, reapandsow CEO] and getting to know him a little bit, I thought, 'wait, what would I rather do, just get signed blindly by one of these bigger companies or go with someone smaller who is aware of who I am, who I have real contact with.'  You know it doesn't take paying 20 people to get your catalogue in [to the 'pipeline' that feeds iTunes, Rhapsody, etc], it takes one responsible person; so I'm gonna go with reapandsow."

In a way, the manner in which T Lavitz signed his deal with reapandsow is a microcosm of his entire career – it's always been about good music with good people.

During our conversation T and I would at times drift off into non-musical topics, but as we would travel further away T's excitement would wane.  As he spoke about making his music available for future generations by signing with reapandsow I recall how he told the guys in Panic that "there's more to life" than music.

While that may be true, one gets the feeling that without music, life wouldn't amount to much for T Lavitz.

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