A few weeks ago we learned that jazz keyboard player T Lavitz died unexpectedly in his sleep at the age of 54. Lavitz was best known for his time in the jazz-rock fusion group Dixie Dregs, but also released high-profile solo works, and he also formed groups such as the critically acclaimed Players, as well as Jazz is Dead which was an ensemble of veteran jazz players reinterpreting works of the Grateful Dead.
Lavitz was one of the many talented artists to come out of the University of Miami’s ground-breaking jazz education program of the 1970’s (including most of the Dixie Dregs as well as Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Maria Schneider and many others), and was asked to join the Dixie Dregs in 1978 during his senior year at the school. He was immediate great fit and contributed quite a bit to every record between 1979 and the breakup in 1983.
Since then he has continued to be very active in music, with a large number of acclaimed recordings with his own bands and many other projects. He joined the Dregs when they got back together for a few years in the early 1990’s, and personally won numerous awards for his keyboard playing. In the last few years he had joined the staff at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, where he was well regarded as an instructor and bandleader.
T Lavitz joined the Dixie Dregs just after what I consider their best record, What If, but was a big part of everything after that. I loved his contributions to ‘Industry Standard’, and found it to show his skills at their peak for the group. I also loved his 2007 release ‘School of the Arts’, and recently re-discovered that he played on an 80’s fusion record called ‘Players’ I bought for bassist Jeff Berlin. Since his life was a celebration of great music, I figure the best way to pay respect is to look back at these three excellent recordings. Since the Dregs are regarded as one of the premier fusion bands, I will look in detail at that recording and take a quicker look at the other two. School of the Arts is still readily available, but sadly both Industry Standard and Players only came out briefly on CD and have since faded out of print once again, meaning that the Amazon links at the bottom are going to net you used copies or pricey imports.
Let’s start with The Dregs – Industry Standard
By the time Industry Standard was released, the band was called simply The Dregs, apparently in an effort to bolster their ‘rock cred’ by dissociating themselves with the ‘Dixie’ image in hopes of reaching mainstream record sales figures. It didn’t work … but nor did it matter, really. It is a solid recording
Here are the songs with some general thoughts on each:
Assembly Line – Starting right off with a high energy, syncopated unison run between guitar, bass and drums, with the keyboards joining in and then Steve Morse and violinist Mark O’Connor dropping a beautiful melody on top of it all, this is vintage Dregs and when I first heard it made me think ‘what have I been missing all these years’. It reminded me why Morse had won so many ‘best guitarist’ polls and why Lavitz was coming off a ‘best new keyboard player’ win.
Crank It Up – I wasn’t a big fan of this song in the early 80’s for the reason it is on the record – it is a song that starts with the feeling that most hard-rock groups of the era (Styx, Journey, etc) could have done it, then ramps into high speed unison runs and syncopated harmonies. It has aged much worse than anything else on the record.
Chips Ahoy – A beautiful almost Celtic sounding melody is played at breakneck speeds by Morse and O’Connor, against a syncopated backdrop that never really lets you settle into a comfortable groove. Yet the entire band carries the theme through the entire song, alternative beautiful and breathtakingly fast interpretations.
Bloodsucking Leeches – I remember hearing this for the first time, thinking it was going to be typical hard driving rock-fusion until it started dropping beats and changing things between the hard-driving edge, the fast paced runs, and interesting small sections that allow each member of the band to stretch out.
Up in the Air – You can’t call this ‘dueling Steves’, as it is much more collaborative … but it still joins up Morse with Steve Howe of Yes. Gorgeous acoustic guitar duet on a neo-classical composed theme with some amount of improvisation.
Ridin’ High – After a promising entry, you get more arena-meets-hair-rock vocals with a fairly static underpinning. But when the vocals stop, the core song structure is solid enough to support some great improvisation by all the leads. Morse is the clear star here as his rock sensibilities do a great job of propelling the action throughout.
Where’s Dixie – Ah, yes – the requisite country-themed song! Mark O’Connor really gets to stretch out here, but as I have listened to other stuff by the group I have realized that this is pretty derivative of other similar songs done on earlier records. Still a fun romp … but also still definitely not my type of music.
Conversation Piece – Beautiful ballad theme played over a counterpoint backdrop draws you into the world the Dregs are exploring here. It is an engagingly intricate composition augmented by excellent group dynamics and improvisation. My only regret is that Morse is really cooking when the song fades out at the end!
Vitamin Q – Once again the group refuses to let you know where the song is going immediately – there is a melodic entry followed by a heavier fusion rhythmic section, then a beautiful new melody immediately broken up by light unison runs. By the time Morse starts what seems to be a solo that quickly becomes a unison bit with O’Connor, you realize this piece will never let you relax … which is a good thing!
Where to Buy: Amazon.com
Price: ~$25 (out of print)
Here is a live video from the 1990’s of the group playing Assembly Line:
Now let’s look at the 2007 release School for the Arts – Featuring T Lavitz
Summary: The cast of musicians here is stellar – Lavitz is joined by guitarist Frank Gambale, drummer Dave Weckl, and bassist John Patitucci; with special appearances by violinist Jerry Goodman and guitarist Steve Morse. I actually bought this when it came out due to bassist Patitucci who is a fave of mine, but found the ensemble playing here superb.
This is pretty much an acoustic affair, with Patitucci occasionally hitting the electric bass. From the very start of Fairweather Green you hear a very mature ensemble. There are elements that could have fit with old Dixie Dregs in terms of the harmonic structures, but this is clearly a modern, Lavitz led affair. I was struck at once by how much of the music owes a clear heritage to previous work but is so much more developed, particurly compared to Lavitz 80’s solo and project work.
The core group has amazing chemistry, which makes sense since Weckl, Patitucci and Gambale all have years of experience in Chick Corea’s electric bands. Lavitz compositions are simultaneously highly developed and wide open – there are tight runs, meter shifts, stop & go moments, and yet enough space where you can hear how everyone stacks up harmonically.
Jerry Goodman (from the 70’s incarnation of Mahavishnu Orchestra) joins on violin for two tracks, complementing the Lavitz compositions push for a somewhat bluegrass feel. Steve Morse rejoins his old band-mate (and frequent collaborator) for Portrait, an intense and intricate composition that just sears from end to end and would clearly be an amazing fusion piece for an electric ensemble but is unique as an acoustic piece.
I remember exactly why I removed this from my iTunes library – I was trying to slim it down to under 10GB, and decided I could only have a single John Patitucci record (see my focus?) … and chose On the Corner. Since breaking this out again I am sure this is going to be in my digital collection for quite a while in the future. It is a great record with high-level ensemble and solo performances by mature artists at the top of their game.
‘Lavitz Choice’ Track (and why): Maybe Next Time – OK, so maybe it is easy choosing the solo piano piece for this, but it is a great song that is at once a classic Lavitz composition and also him stretching to do some different things. It is pretty without getting sentimental, and is just a fun song to listen to him take hold of and carry away.
You Might Love This If: You love acoustic jazz with a fusion slant. The music is exciting, well developed and extremely well played. Everyone commits fully to this project and as a result the communication is superb, the soloing is awesome, and the ‘group feel’ makes it hard to see this as just a one-off project.
Here is a video showing T Lavitz recording his parts on ‘High Fallutin’ Blues':
Finally let’s look at the 1986 live recording Players
Summary: The mid-to-late 1980’s were a bit of a tough time for jazz fusion. Smooth jazz acts like Kenny G were very popular, and even established players like David Sanborn and Grover Washington were feeling the pull and releasing ‘lite’ albums. The new Mahavishnu had gone from promising to pop-centric to gone in two years, Weather Report put out their worst garbage recordings ever, Pat Metheny took his group in a very ‘radio friendly’ direction, and so on. I was still buying lots of CD’s but my listening was retreating to more of the avant-garde. As a result, while I bought stuff like Players and Chick Corea’s Elektrik Band, they have generally languished through the years in storage.
I honestly can’t recall the last time I opened this CD, but it was likely in the late 1980’s. I don’t ever recall putting it on an iPod, and wouldn’t have ever looked for it had I not seen it listed on Lavitz discography as I was looking through his history. As I mentioned before, I bought it because of my love of bassist Jeff Berlin. Listening now put two thoughts in my mind: I appreciate the recording in a way I couldn’t back then, and I understand why I didn’t think of T Lavitz on this recording back then.
Players includes Lavitz, Berlin, former Journey drummer Steve Smith, and Scott Henderson. Lavitz described it as a ‘Passport Jazz All-Stars’, referring to the former record label all four were working for at the time. The songs are all solid, but generally don’t live up to the standard set at the time by Corea’s Elektrik Band.
The improvisations are all solid, with each player having at least one song that really shines the light on their skills: for Henderson it is 50/50, for Smith it is Vehicle. Lavitz gets some time on Crystal, keys off Valentine, stretches out on Freight Train Shuffle, and lays down solid solos on every track.
But it is no coincidence that Amazon has this listed with reference to Jeff Berlin – wherever he appears on the record he shines through. On Vehicle, even while Lavitz is soloing on synth and then piano, it is the harmonic drive and intriguing figures Berlin puts together than capture my attention.
Players ended up as a one-off recording … though all four players also appeared on T Lavitz Storytime debut on Passport. It is a solid recording that has actually endured the ravages of time better than most 80’s fusion. I credit that to the solid compositions and the quality of the musicianship, both of which are a reflection on the maturity and depth of T Lavitz.
‘Lavitz Choice’ Track (and why): Crystal – while much of the composition sounds like ‘Pat Metheny Group meets Chick Cores Elektrik Band’, the improvising is absolutely stunning. Lavitz takes control with a simple bluesy melody about a minute in and never lets go! It isn’t my favorite song, but shows how much Lavitz had grown even in the few years since the Dregs era.
You Might Love This If: Let me be honest – this is not one of the first choices to make for a T Lavitz record. Buy it for a solid 80’s fusion ensemble with absolutely stellar bass. But if you are looking to see what Lavitz was up to in the 80’s, check out his debut, which also includes the song Between Coming and Going from this record.
Here is a video featuring ‘Freight Train Shuffle':
I had been listening to instrumental rock, jazz and fusion for several years before discovering the Dixie Dregs, and as my first entry I bought Industry Standard when it came out in 1982. Why did I skip their stuff? In a word – ‘Dixie’. I had heard about how great Steve Morse was, how I really needed to hear Andy West, and how great they were in general. Yet the potential connotations of the word ‘Dixie’ kept me away for quite a while – but I’m glad I finally overcame that fear!
I broke out all of my old CD’s after learning of the death of T Lavitz, and listened with a focus on his work and contribution. It is interesting that everything I have with him I bought for other reasons – the Dixie Dregs stuff for Morse & West, Players for Jeff Berlin, and School for the Arts for Patitucci.
Yet his growth through the years is undeniable – he was a critical member in the Dregs, particularly by the time Industry Standard was made. He has talked about setting his ego aside due to the high level or Steve Morse’s composition, yet his impact on the harmonic development of songs was critical. You see the same thing on Players – he composed many of those songs, but the lead voice often went to Henderson or Berlin, with Lavitz selflessly playing support for much of the time.
By the time School of the Arts arrived twenty years later, he was a master composer and improviser. He had been teaching summer seminars at Berklee for a few years, and handled the ensemble deftly and with great confidence. While on Players he faded into the background at times, with School of the Arts he was always present – but never at the expense of others.
It is always sad to see someone pass on – especially when it is not the result of self-destructive behavior, and when that person is so young. But T Lavitz left a broad mark on the jazz-rock fusion world through his playing and composing and educational efforts. And that is definitely worth celebrating.
Finally, if you are looking for more information you can head to T Lavitz official site.