Musical marvels

Superheroes they’re not. But for T Lavitz, playing in Justice League is yet another chance to jam with a super group.

That’s something the Dixie Dregs/Jazz Is Dead keyboardist is used to. Last year, he toured briefly with a band called the Hillbilly Funk All Stars — featuring Richie Hayward and Kenny Gradney from Little Feat, Vassar Clements and Catfish Hodge. “It was cool; it was weird,” he says simply. Soon thereafter, Lavitz’s friend and Jazz Is Dead bandmate — guitarist Jimmy Herring — expressed an interest in playing with Lavitz, Hayward and bassist Bobby Vega. It wasn’t long before some dates were booked for the new quartet, under the name Justice League.

The official hype about Justice League gives the band’s mission as “a short tour of long jams.” They’re performing only 11 shows (one of which is right here in Asheville, at Stella Blue). “I understand you need a hook, something to hang your hat on,” says Lavitz, with a sigh. “You know: ‘What’s this about? What are they doing?’ To me, it’s like, ‘Hello?’ Richie is one of the great rhythm-section players in rock ‘n’ roll, and Jimmy’s one of the greatest soloists out there today, on any instrument. Isn’t that enough? Just really good players going out and playing?

“A friend of mine used to play with Miles Davis,” continues Lavitz, “and he was, like, ‘You know, what was cool about Miles’ music was that it wasn’t always complicated.’ … [There would be] a beginning and an end for sure, and then there’d be a lot of crazy jamming — improv. Not that we’re going to play jazz — Bobby and Richie are more in the rock style — but with a bass player and drummer like them, you can lay down some ridiculous grooves. [Then I can] play chords over it and have Jimmy go crazy.”

Justice League will probably perform a couple of Little Feat tunes as instrumentals, and a few original songs by Lavitz. They might even cover a Dixie Dregs tune or two. “Jimmy is one of the only people that can play [the Dregs’] music and do it justice,” the keyboardist says. The group will also likely serve up something off Jazz Is Dead’s Laughing Water (Zebra Records, 1999). But mainly, “[We’ll play] hodgepodge, a melting pot of American music,” Lavitz reveals.

Lavitz is particularly excited about the prospect of working with Hayward again. “He’s awesome. It’s a thing where you just laugh,” Lavitz explains, “because, from the first note, it’s funky. He starts a beat with the shuffling snaredrum thing that he does, and it’s like, I don’t even have to tap my foot. The timing is emanating from him, and it just makes you smile. Your fingers just go, ‘Ahhhh.’ The 16th-note, choppy organ stuff that I like to do [becomes] like it was sequenced. And that was [true] the first time [I played with him]. Then you … play with someone over a period of years and strike a groove, so to speak.”

Justice League bassist Bobby Vega played with Sly & The Family Stone when he was only 16. More recently, he has performed with blues singer Etta James and jam bands Zero and KVHW. Vega first worked with Lavitz in Jefferson Starship. “A couple of times, Jack Cassady couldn’t [play], and they brought Bobby in to sub,” Lavitz recalls. “I was like, ‘God, this guy lays it down, lays it down!‘”

After the Justice League tour ends, Lavitz will embark on a month-long Dixie Dregs tour — coinciding with the release of a live Dregs album on Zebra Records.

Lavitz first met the Dregs in the mid-’70s at the University of Miami. “[Band leader] Steve [Morse] was barefoot and wearing his guitar all low down, and then there was Rod [Morgenstein] and Andy [West] and Allan [Sloan]. … I started stalking them instantly,” he remembers, with a laugh. “By ’78, they were gods to [all of] us. They had left [school] and gotten a record deal. Then this friend said to me, ‘I saw Rod, and he wants you to call him at his hotel.’ And [it was] just like when I was a little kid [and I ] started dreaming about being the fifth Beatle. I instantly dreamed that they wanted me to fly to Atlanta, audition for my favorite band, quit school, and join them. And that’s what happened!”

Lavitz’s early influences included the Allman Brothers, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Chick Corea. “But of course, [in] music school they do it right and take you all the way back to Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, then Bill Evans and Herbie [Hancock] and all those guys. Then they take you through all those masters of jazz piano, [like] Keith Jarrett.”

Lavitz has supported himself with his music since college. “I had a paper route when I was a kid,” he remembers. “I worked in an ice-cream place, and then I pruned apple trees in Virginia when my family moved there. I was a dishwasher at one place. … I think taking those jobs were motivations for me to say, ‘I really want to do music.’ But that doesn’t mean you’re [necessarily going to get the opportunity] to just play music. I got lucky. I practiced and had enough talent for someone like the Dregs to take note and say, ‘Hey, maybe that guy’ll work.’ And once you get a shot like that, you get some recognition, and it’s a little easier to hook up with the next band.

“I’ve gotta say, there have been times when it was not easy, and it’s not like I’m living in a mansion now,” he relates. “I still always have to look at, ‘Well, what’s next?’ But I have to be grateful that, at age 43, I’m able to pay my bills and drive a car and be a normal human being.”

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