There have been five different lineups of the group Jazz Is Dead — specializing in jazz-fusion covers of Grateful Dead songs — since its formation in 1998, but the current ensemble, which performs at the South Orange Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (for information, visit sopacnow.org), is the first to feature an actual Grateful Dead member: keyboardist Tom Constanten, who played with the Dead from 1968 to 1970.
Bassist Alphonso Johnson’s Dead-related credentials are pretty good, though. He has played in the Dead offshoot group Bobby & the Midnites (led by singer-guitarist Bob Weir) and with Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann in the band, The Other Ones. He also played in the influential fusion group Weather Report from 1974 to 1976, and has backed artists ranging from Michael Jackson to Phil Collins and Carlos Santana.
Johnson says he wasn’t a “Deadhead,” per se, before joining Jazz Is Dead (the concept came from manager Michael Gaiman), but always admired them.
“They have a very unique approach to music, not unlike a jazz musician,” he says. “They take songs from bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll and R&B and put their stamp on them.”
Like the Dead, which never plotted out setlists before taking the stage, the five members of Jazz Is Dead simply came together, shortly before their current tour was scheduled to start (on Aug. 1, which would have been the late Jerry Garcia’s 73rd birthday), and let their current show evolve.
“The best part of it is to just get together and see what happens,” Johnson says. “That’s where the fun begins, when we take something … where everybody has a point of reference — which are these songs — and then we can kind of go from there.
“That’s always been my approach, whether I was playing with Weather Report, or George Duke and Billy Cobham: We kind of get together and have some fun, get our bearings and then explore the music, rather than trying to map everything out.”
The tour — which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s formation, and takes place in the same summer as the shows that surviving Grateful Dead members have said will be their last ones together — is Jazz Is Dead’s first tour since 2006. Part of the reason behind the hiatus was the 2010 death of keyboardist T. Lavitz, the only person who had been in all of the band’s lineups from 1998 to 2006.
“That was just a moment to reflect, and take a break from touring,” says Johnson.
Joining Constanten and Johnson in the current group are drummer Rod Morgenstein (whose credits include the Dixie Dregs, the Steve Morse Band and Winger), guitarist Jeff Pevar (who has played with Phil Lesh and Friends and Crosby, Stills & Nash, among many others) and longtime Jefferson Starship keyboardist Chris Smith.
Johnson, who teaches at USC in addition to recording and touring, says he hopes this lineup will stay together for a while.
“I love playing this music,” he says. “We’ve got some dates booked for November, and even next February. I hope there’s an opportunity for us to continue this.”