Catching Up with…
by Bob Girouard
Preparedness has long been a key to survival for working musicians. It’s certainly been a constant in Rod Morgenstein’s long career, ever since his red-hot collegiate passion for the legendary fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra made him a perfect fit for Steve Morse’s similarly molded Dixie Dregs. Decades later, like all survivors, Morgenstein still embraces the unknown, creating something new using the elements he’s presented with. Jazz Is Dead’s recently released fourth album, Grateful Jazz, is yet another example of this open approach, finding Morgenstein, alongside guitarist Jeff Pevar, bassist David Livolsi, and late Dregs keyboardist T Lavitz, flawlessly blending genres while reinterpreting a vast range of Grateful Dead classics as instrumentals.
“I’ve done fifty or sixty albums in my career,” Morgenstein says, “and sometimes as a player you think, This could be the one. Maybe it’s because of the history of this recording—the basic tracks were cut in 2004 with original members T Lavitz and Alphonso Johnson—but I think this one is special.”
To be sure, if ever there were a showcase for Morgenstein’s versatility, Grateful Jazz is it. Rod’s all over the Dead staples “Sugar Magnolia,” “Truckin’, “Attics of My Life,” and “Mr. Charlie”/“One More Saturday Night,” alternately playing with sensitivity and ferocity, maximizing his capabilities rhythmically and melodically, and always walking the delicate line of respecting tradition and exploring boldly. On this last point, Morgenstein says, “You have to make sure you’re stating the main themes of whatever song you’re doing so that the audience can recognize it. But the whole beauty and charm of this band is, as soon as the verses and choruses have been clearly laid out, it’s almost like a free-for-all.”
In 2016, Morgenstein’s go-for-it credo seems as top of mind as ever. “I have a couple of surprises,” Rod shares. “First, Winger is due for an album and a tour. Second, the Jelly Jam [Morgenstein’s rock trio with guitarist Ty Tabor of King’s X and bassist John Myung of Dream Theater] is in the midst of signing a record deal and will be recording and hopefully touring for the first time. And third, I might be coming home again. By that I mean that we’re in preliminary discussions about reforming the Dixie Dregs. Nothing is sealed yet; we’ve just started talking.”
If all goes according to plan, we, and many others, will definitely be listening.
Since first appearing on MD’s cover in July of 1985, Rod Morgenstein has enjoyed a sterling yet unpredictable career, racking up Grammy nominations with the legendary fusion band Dixie Dregs and touring and recording with the pop-metal act Winger, jazzy shredders the Jelly Jam, and the prog-leaning Rudess/Morgenstein Project. He’s also penned the well-regarded method books Drum Set Warm-Ups and The Drumset Musician (the latter was counted in MD’s 25 Timeless Drum Books survey), contributed to this magazine as a writer and Pro Panel member, and served as professor of percussion at Berklee College of Music, where his Rock Drums online course is now in its fifth year. A fan favorite, Morgenstein topped the Progressive Rock category in MD’s annual Readers Poll each year between 1987 and 1990, and in 1999 he was voted best All-Around Drummer.