Sharps & Flats

Sometimes Jerry Garcia sounded bored playing with the Dead. But on the David Grisman-Tony Rice project "The Pizza Tapes," the old guitarist nearly caught fire.

By Seth Mnookin
Published April 26, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Legend has it that the music on "The Pizza Tapes" was booted by an audacious pizza delivery boy who swiped a tape of rough mixes off of Jerry Garcia's kitchen counter. Within weeks, second- and third-generation dubs were being played on late-night Grateful Dead radio shows around the country. At first, David Grisman was incensed. After all, his first collaboration with the Grateful Dead guitarist bankrolled Grisman's Acoustic Disc label in its early years.

Now, more than seven years after it was recorded and almost five years after Garcia died, Grisman has finally released 70 minutes of music from this onetime collaboration. And Grisman has even showed a mellowing sense of humor, titling the disc "The Pizza Tapes," and including between-song patter, or "spicy appetizers." As one in an ongoing series of Garcia/Grisman releases, "The Pizza Tapes" is a clear triumph, showing the still-fruitful avenues an older Garcia could have explored had not his body succumbed to decades of abuse and neglect.

Teamed with Grisman, one of the country's most lyrical and adventurous mandolinists, and guitarist Tony Rice, who helped pioneer a bluegrass/jazz hybrid first as a member of Grisman's quintets in the '70s and then on his own in the '80s, Garcia was free to explore with musical peers. The 12 songs featured here are meandering in the best sense of the word: They wander and twist and turn without a clear sense of where they're headed. Which is not to say "The Pizza Tapes" feature the type of aimless noodling that critics of the Dead decried with such passion; rather, the absence of solid, worked-out songs or a long history of playing together allows for some breathtaking flights of improvisation. When Rice bursts out of a chorus with a startling run in the middle of Mississippi John Hurt's "Louis Collins," you can hear all three musicians stop and catch their breath.

On par with the satisfying musical panache displayed here is the palpable sense that Garcia, who didn't always appear to be enjoying himself with the Dead, is bubbling over with excitement. He breaks out in giggles after many of the songs, seemingly amazed at how much fun it can be to just shoot the musical shit with players who are as good as he is. After a smoking rendition of "Shady Grove" ("Tony and I used to be known as the Gasoline Brothers," Grisman explains), Garcia erupts in his childish voice, "Shit, I'm having a great time, man. Tony, it's a fucking pleasure playing with you, man." And while it's the acoustic interplay between these three musicians at the center of "The Pizza Tapes" - Grisman and Rice recapturing licks they first explored two decades ago, Garcia and Rice trying to outpick each other on an instrumental duet of "Summertime" - it's also a treat to hear Garcia try to sing standards like "Amazing Grace" and "House of the Rising Sun."

Not every song here is top-notch, and had this trio met again for future sessions, some of the songs probably wouldn't have made a second cut, like an uninspired rendition of "Drifting Too Far From the Shore." But that's quibbling with an abundance of riches. As Rice says near the beginning of the session, referring to the trio, "Shoulda happened a long time ago." It's a shame it won't happen again.

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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