Grateful. Dead and the Art of Rock. Improvisation.
Rock promoter Bill Graham once noted that the Grateful Dead are "not the best at what they do, they're the only ones that do what they do" (5). David Malvinni's book, Grateful Dead and the Art of Rock Improvisation analyzes this uniqueness and explores two ways the Grateful Dead can be distinguished from other rock bands of their era: first, the band's approach to jam-based performances through group improvisation, and second, their unique relationship to audiences, which enhanced and propelled those innovative improvisational techniques (5). In the book's seven chapters, Malvinni investigates the Dead's hybrid musical style and instrumental improvisation development from the early years (1965-1975) to the death of Jerry Garcia (1995).
Malvinni teases out the intricate layers that weave through a topic steeped in bohemianism, the counterculture movement of the 1960s, and American vernacular musics. However, members of the Grateful Dead did not want to be identified as counterculture leaders nor did they (or the mainstream media) consider themselves "popular." Thus the label "popular music" is in essence problematic although the band did achieve mainstream notoriety with a Top 10 album In the Dark and the single "Touch of Grey," both from 1987. Instead of being weighed down by methodology and very aware of the knotty territory a musical analysis and study of the Grateful Dead would entail, Malvinni attempts to navigate the reader through the historical, musical, and social context of the band while simultaneously forming a parallel narrative on the history of rock improvisation.
Commentary on improvisation brings up complex issues involved with non-notated music, and Malvinni attempts to find a compromise between analyzing transcriptions of performances and the phenomenology behind the Dead's style; because the Dead's work is steeped in their interactions with psychedelic drugs and bohemianism, Malvinni would have been remiss if he only focused on specific performance transcriptions. Malvinni draws on some topics and themes from his essay, "'Mr. Charlie Told Me So": Heidegger and the Dead's Early Assimilation to the Technology of the Blues" that appeared in The Grateful Dead in Concert: Essays on Live Improvisation, edited by Jim Tuedio and Stan Spector (2010), but expands the topic of Dead improvisation into a monograph that applies a postmodern perspective and commentary on how to listen and respond to the Dead's innovative improvisational style. Malvinni's methodological technique examines the Dead's compositional output through a variety of approaches, including (but not limited to) harmonic analysis, set and tour charts, philosophic discourse, transcriptions, and interviews. The author widely references Graeme M. Boone's work on the Dead as well as other studies of improvisation by Derek Bailey and Bennet Hogg.
By situating the Dead within the birth and development of counterculture, Malvinni concurrently provides a historical account of the Dead's development along with the socio-cultural context of simultaneous movements in western classical music and jazz during the 1960s and 1970s. Malvinni constructs an argument that highlights the Dead's innovative improvisational material in specific case studies while giving readers reference points steeped in modal jazz, rock, R&B, and western classical traditions.
Particularly useful are the two chapters dedicated to the Dead's most famous jam-based song, "Dark Star" (1968). Malvinni not only uses the song as a case study for musicological analysis, but also includes commentary on what he calls the "Dead Experience" in an aesthetic and spiritual context: "'Dark Star' gets at the essence of what the Grateful Dead experience is supposed to be, namely, the transformation of the mundane, the commonplace, into a higher (literally and figuratively) consciousness" (75). Malvinni claims "Dark Star" cannot be "reduced to a template that follows the motions of another style and in fact starts to refer to itself and its own historical unfolding" (99).
Chapter 3, devoted to "Dark Star," focuses on the aesthetics, spirituality, and historical aspects of the song. The Dead were hesitant about "Dark Star" being analyzed, believing the song to be an ineffable musical experience that exceeded any traditional concept of a rock song. Acknowledging the band's reticence to have this song crystalized in a static discourse, Malvinni navigates the reader through the aesthetic aspects of the improvisational sections of "Dark Star." Drawing on Graeme Boone's tonal analysis of the "Dark Star Progression," the author includes a detailed chronology of the evolution of the song and a historiography of the musical source materials the band derived from their interest in Charles Ives's work (free polyphony and unmetered barring) and bass ostinatos from Miles Davis's "So What" (87).
Utilizing "Dark Star" as the paramount example of the Dead's improvisational development and expansion of modal jam songs, Malvinni theorizes, in chapter 4, that the Dead achieved an unprecedented level of new improvisational episodes in live performances of "Dark Star" that surpassed any other contemporary popular rock band's improvisations, including Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" from 1966 (99). Distilled to two types of the Dead-stylized improvisation: Type 1 and Type 2, "Dark Star" is an example of Type 2 (two verses with jam sections on either side and vocals that emerge organically from the oscillating harmonic areas). In chapter 5, Malvinni introduces the song, "Playing in the Band" (1974) as an example of the Dead's departure in the mid 1970s from the "Dark Star'" modal jazz-based "spacy" jam style. An example of Type 1 improvisation, "Playing in the Band" is based on a jazz tune with a traditional melodic introduction (head) followed by solo and group improvisation before a restatement.
In essence, the book represents Malvinni's attempt to employ complex analytical concepts to elucidate popular music. As in any investigation, the results are mixed. In his enthusiasm for his argument that the Dead were essentially a genre-bending band, Malvinni at times indulges in generalizations that fail to hold up under scrutiny and he occasionally omits evidence that would appear to undermine his theory. For example, Malvinni illustrates the importance of the Dead's initial participation in the 1960s folk revival by presenting a broad history of folk song collecting and the issues of authenticity. This topic, of course, could constitute an entire chapter in itself, and its brief coverage here leads the author to omit several key historical concepts and figures. As a case in point, his brief overview of 1920s and 1930s folk-commercial distribution fails to provide a needed explanation of the recording equipment or music collecting techniques by early ethnomusicologists. (Bartok is introduced as a composer and folk song collector, but Alan Lomax is simply a "folklorist.") Malvinni frames his argument for authenticity in folk music studies by claiming that the music chosen for Hariy Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music (used by the Dead as source material) only included recordings from 1927 to 1932 because they "still retained some of the regional qualities" before technology changed the sonic landscape of the United States (21). The author erroneously claims that "authentic" field recordings ended in 1932 because of the Great Depression, sweeping casually past any mention of the exhaustive collecting work in the 1930s and 1940s undertaken under the auspices of various federally funded programs, mostly within the WPA.
The author's intensive research could have been tailored more effectively so as to focus less on philosophical theories (Deleuze, Heidegger, Derrida, et al.) and broader musical concepts and more on the Dead's approach to improvisation, the music, and unique relationship with their fans. An expansion of the introduction to incorporate the presentation and definition of key concepts and terms for the non-specialist reader (i.e., "Deadness," "Tiger Moment," "X Factor") would have helped frame the book more effectively. For example, Malvinni uses the term "Tiger Moment" in the second chapter without a definition; only in chapter 4 do we learn that it means a "total descent into chaotic dissonance" (128). Finally, in chapter 5, a detailed definition is given: '"Tiger Jam' is not really a chord progression so much as a meltdown section, which came to assume descending riffs (often four descending chromatic notes in stepwise motion) usually with distortion from Garcia but, more important, as a rhythmic release from the entire band" (151). The work would have also benefitted from more efficient copyediting, with special attention directed towards numerous typo corrections.
Although Malvinni's arguments are difficult to follow at times, his detailed charts, transcriptions, and tables will prove very useful to both instructors and performers. Of particular note is the lengthy table 1.1, "Songs by and for African American Artists Covered by the Grateful Dead" (30-33). As opposed to other bands that covered songs to make instant hits, the Dead used them to generate source material for their live shows. Malvinni presents each song title, number of performances, dates, and original songwriters and performers for more than a hundred cover songs. Scholars and researchers will find this meticulous detail helpful.
The recent flood of books and articles about the Dead, including the Rolling Stone report, "The Dead After Jerry," accompanying the 2015 farewell concert tour of the surviving Dead band members (Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, and Bob Weir), is likely to stimulate a new generation of listeners and a revival of interest in the band's works. Band members Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart have already authored several books and drummer Bill Kreutzmann recently published an autobiography in May 2015. Malvinni's book serves as a useful guide through the intricacies of the Dead's improvisational acumen and achievement for interested rock musicians and scholars.
Elisse C. La Barre
University of California, Santa Cruz
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|Author:||La Barre, Elisse C.|
|Publication:||Society for American Music Bulletin|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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