Joe Russo’s Almost Dead topped the bill on the opening day of Newport Jazz Festival 2023 this past Friday. The set was originally announced as a collaboration with modern-day jazz luminary Kamasi Washington, a pairing many fans saw as an homage to the Grateful Dead‘s long history of live collaboration with legendary saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Just days before the show, however, Kamasi dropped off the lineup due to unforeseen circumstances. In a twist of fate, Newport Jazz recruited Branford Marsalis himself to fill in.
Marsalis, who wasn’t on the 2023 Newport Jazz lineup at all prior to last week, was a fixture on the festival’s main Fort Stage for much of Friday’s schedule. After performing a set of his own with Joey Calderazzo, William Ledbetter, and Justin Faulkner, Branford Marsalis joined in on the ensuing set for a surprise guest appearance with Soulive.
Great time playing with Soulive. We up next!!! pic.twitter.com/15iQsWRbNf
— Branford Marsalis (@bmarsalis) August 4, 2023
For my money, today’s MVP at the @NewportJazzFest was one Branford Marsalis, who not only KILLED IT with his quartet, but also with Joe Russo, and also as a surprise guest with Soulive. Thank you, Branford. You went beyond the call of duty. 🙏🏾❤️ @bmarsalis
— Christian McBride (@mcbridesworld) August 4, 2023
As late afternoon slipped into early evening on the waterfront stage, Branford Marsalis took the stage with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead—featuring Joe Russo (drums), Marco Benevento (keys), Scott Metzger (guitar, vocals), Tom Hamilton (guitar, vocals), and “when-Dave–Dreiwitz-is-out-with-Ween” bassist Jon Shaw—for a 90-minute headlining set featuring renditions of “King Solomon’s Marbles”, “Row Jimmy”, “Let It Grow”, “Estimated Prophet”, “Terrapin Station”, and “Brokedown Palace”.
Even beyond the brilliance of the collaborative improvisation they summoned together at Newport Jazz Festival, the Branford Marsalis/JRAD set evoked the same kind of mutual respect between musicians that underscored his time as a regular guest with the Grateful Dead throughout the 1990s.
Marsalis first took the stage with the Dead at Nassau Coliseum back on March 29th, 1990. The band gave him an “audition” of sorts during the show’s first set by welcoming him to the stage for what would become a storied version of “Bird Song”. Thoroughly convinced of the chemistry between them, the band invited him to join in for the entire second set and encore.
As Dennis McNally wrote in his 2003 book, A Long Strange Trip: Inside the History of the Grateful Dead, Marsalis sent the band a thank you note following his Nassau sit-in.
“On Thursday night I had the best time I’ve had in my entire life,” the note read. “I now know that playing rock and roll can be all that I have envisioned it would be.”
The Dead were equally effusive in their praise of this unlikely summit of jazz and rock and roll. As drummer Bill Kreutzmann said in his 2015 autobiography, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, written with Benjy Eisen, “We brought Branford up for a now-legendary version of ‘Bird Song’ during the first set, and it was so good, that we invited him out for the entire second set. Branford played with us four more times over the next four years, usually for the entire show. Those were good nights. Branford became a friend of ours and he said something about us that I’ll never forget: he said we all had big ears. Coming from a monster jazz guy like that, it was a monster compliment. We may have helped introduce improvisation to [rock and roll], but the jazz cats had been jamming since before Chuck Berry even picked up his first electric guitar. Having Branford validate us like that really meant something to me. He told us that we showed him what’s possible within [rock and roll] and that playing with us was one of the greatest thrills of his life. That, in turn, was one of the greatest thrills of mine.”
Following the JRAD set at Newport Jazz Festival with Branford Marsalis, the musicians were similarly blown away. As Hamilton noted in a post on social media, “I cannot say thank you enough to [festival executive producer] Jay Sweet and Russo for putting this together, and to Branford for doing it! What an incredible set of music we got to play. This page will be earmarked, for sure.”
As Metzger said in a tweet, “That was 90 of the best minutes of my life.” Marsalis was quick to respond: “Dude, you killed it. Pleasure to share the stage with you guys.”
Below, you can watch a full, crowd-shot video of the Newport Jazz Festival JRAD set featuring Branford Marsalis, listen to a partial audio recording of the performance (starting at track 17), and check out a selection of photos from the Dead/jazz summit.
For a deeper dive into the long, storied history between the Grateful Dead and Branford Marsalis, revisit our 2022 feature on their creative connection here. For a full list of upcoming Joe Russo’s Almost Dead tour dates, head here.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead w/ Branford Marsalis – Newport Jazz Festival – Full Set – 8/4/23
[Video: stephen butler]
Snippets From Newport Jazz 2023 – Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (Starting Track 17, Partial Set) –8/4/23
Setlist: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead | Newport Jazz Festival | Fort Adams State Park | Newport, RI | 8/4/23
Set: King Solomon’s Marbles, Row Jimmy, Let It Grow, Estimated Prophet, Brokedown Palace