Oteil Burbridge: Left of Expectations

Burbridge Reimagines the Grateful Dead on Lovely View of Heaven

Oteil Burbridge: Left of Expectations

Burbridge Reimagines the Grateful Dead on Lovely View of Heaven

Photos by Jessica Burbridge

Photo by Jessica Burbridge

When Jaco Pastorius sat down at the piano and played all of the big band-voiced chords to “Liberty City,” at the end of his instructional video [Jaco Pastorius: Modern Electric Bass, DCI, 1985], it was a revelation. Almost 40 years later, another bass superhero has turned to the piano to craft a landmark record that he considers to be his finest to date. Oteil Burbridge’s Lovely View of Heaven is a profoundly imaginative take on eight Grateful Dead ballads, employing harmony, orchestration, and emotion to bathe Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s music and lyrics in a whole new light. Think Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters [Verve, 2007]. The difference here from that Grammy-winning instrumental side is Oteil utilizes his vocals, passionately performing each song as if he were the main, pain-processing character in them. And while piano is key because that’s where Burbridge fashioned all of his innovative arrangements, his 6-string bass guitar is a worthy countervoice to his vocals, providing a warm, wide anchor, leading the spontaneous reharmonization charge, and soloing expressively on three tracks.

Burbridge’s cast is equally adept, featuring the rhythm tandems of guitarist Tom Guarna and drummer Pete Lavezzoli or guitarist Steve Kimock and drummer Johnny Kimock, plus violinist and keyboardist Jason Crosby, guitar-triggered atmospherics by Adam Tenenbaum, guest guitarist Jaden Lehman, and a posthumous appearance by Oteil’s brother Kofi, on flute. They’re all an important part of the latest chapter in the Washington, D.C.-born-and-raised Burbridge’s long, strange trip as a bassist. It’s a journey that began with jazz intentions until Oteil’s breakout, early-’90s role in Col. Bruce Hampton’s mind-expanding Aquarium Rescue Unit. That set him on a path to jam band history, first as the longest-tenured bassist in the Allman Brothers, and then with stops at Tedeschi Trucks Band, Vida Blue, Frogwings, BK3, Les Brers, Herbie Hancock, Zac Brown Band, and his own Peacemakers, and Oteil & Friends. The latter is a thriving offshoot of Burbridge’s other mainstay gig, joining Dead & Company in 2015. It inspired his deep dive into the Dead’s music, with Oteil preaching the gospel of Gracia and company on and offstage, despite skepticism and snobbery from some. Now, with a record capturing what Oteil was hearing and feeling, everyone can see that the view is indeed lovely.

How did the idea for this record come about?

The origin was my having the opportunity, thankfullly, to sing an increasing number of ballads in Dead & Company, for various reasons. Then during the pandemic I began learning more of them for some streaming concerts I did, where I sang and played piano. I love all of the band’s music and lyrics, but as a naturally emotional person, I especially relate to their ballads. I’ve lost a number of people in my life too soon—my father, my brother, Kofi, Col. Bruce, and my theology mentor, Dr. Jim Barnette, who married my wife and I. Plus at the time we were coming out of the pandemic, which absolutely crushed a lot of people, especially artists and musicians. So I got the idea to make a record of Grateful Dead ballads because I hoped it would help people process it the way it helped me.  

What was your concept?

I realized a while back that one of the places where I connected with the Dead’s music was my background in jazz, specifically ECM Records. Their artists’ take on jazz was not bebop, but it was open and free, and had some rock and avant-garde elements, much like the Dead—which aligns with many of my major influences, like Sun Ra, Elvin Jones, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Col. Bruce. So that’s how I approached the project: If I did a record of the Dead’s music through the lens of the classic ECM stable of musicians, what would it sound like? Then my manager called to recommend Floki Studios in Haganesvik, Iceland. I’d heard good things about it from friends who recorded there, and my wife and I had never been to Iceland, so we got the band together and spend nine days up there, in early December of 2022. When we arrived I thought, This is the perfect setting to make an ECM-style record. It was snowing, there was no light pollution, and right outside the door was a view of the Artic Ocean and the Aurora Borealis; it was magical.

How did you choose the band and instrumentation?

I wanted to stay close to what was on the Grateful Dead version of these songs, and the guys on the record either have been or are in my band, like Steve and Johnny Kimock. My first gig after the pandemic was with Tom Guarna and Pete Lavezzoli at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, in Florida. Tom is a great jazz guitarist in addition to his initial rock background, so he understood the ECM angle, and Pete has an encyclopedic knowledge of both jazz and the Dead. Beyond those two excellent rhythm sections, there are two sonic departures, for me. One is Jason Crosby on his violins, which adds a distinct, new element. Jason, who goes back with me to the Peacemakers, also plays keyboards on the record. The other is the atmospherics Adam Tenenbaum triggers from his guitar. Adam used to make the sounds and loops for Micky Hart’s drum space in Dead & Company shows.

How did the arrangements come together?

Bascially, I sat at the piano, worked out the arrangements, and made demos on my computer, and then I sent them to everyone. We had been playing some of these tunes on my tours, but these were new and different arrangements. I wanted the skeleton of the songs to be the same, so that if you sing the song the way you know it from the original version it would work, with the exception of some of the endings. But within each framework there are a lot of reharmonizations and reworked sections. Really, the key to why this album sounds the way it does is because I prepared it on piano. Kofi told me years ago to get into piano and I finally listened. I prefer writing on it now because I can easily get all kinds of cool, close-voice chords without having to kill myself on the 6-string fretboard. I’ll be composing more on it going forward.

Anyway, once we got to Iceland, we didn’t have time to rehearse, so we dove right in. We had a direction and we let the parts come together organically. My producer, Alan Evans, who is the drummer in Soulive, had the idea for us to play to my demos, which were cut to a click. So we took out everything from the demos except the click and my scratch vocals. We cut the rhythm tracks live, first, and then everyone had some punches they wanted to do. Then I did my vocals the last two days.

Let’s talk about your bass concept for the record. You often have the piano doubling your bass line to powerful effect.

For this record, a lot of it was about the bass substitutions; the mood I wanted to create by the liberties I took and the choices I made to change the chords. The idea was to kind of twist the diamond so the light goes through different facets of these songs. As for the bass and piano bass doubling, it’s all about emotion and orchestration. When Jason hits a low C with me, plus his octave up, it almost feels like the bass section of an orchestra, bowing; you get that huge, spread sound.

How about your vocals, which are often out there all alone.

Vocals are always a little nerve-wracking for me, but I felt I had sung these songs enough live. And the ones hadn’t sung live, I demoed at home, so I felt confident going into the studio. If I could score higher there, great, but if not they were already good. I kept them all in the original keys because they mostly fit my range and I’d found my place in them. It’s true, I left out background parts from the originals on many of the songs. I liked the sense of loneliness and vulnerability conveyed by having just the lead vocal, naked and exposed.

“Stella Blue” opens the album via Jason Crosby’s violin, and ends with a bass solo.

I love how Jason immediately sets the tone that this is not a Dead cover band record. It instantly goes to the left of your expectations, which is where we should always start. “Stella” is one of the most beloved, Mount Rushmore Dead songs and I had sung it a lot with my band. So after we got Jason’s strings on there. Al thought it would be a great opener. The lyrics speak to many emotions I’ve long had, as well as new ones I’ve gained now that I’m older and more aware of things than I used to be—like what a fine line there is between life and death. The songwriting in the Dead was incredibly mature considering their young ages. I recorded the bass solo when I got back home from Iceland, where I only had my Sandberg, because I wanted the extra high notes on my Modulus [See music below].

There are two versions of “High Times.” One features your late brother, Kofi soloing over the ending, which is rife with your bass substitutions.

I chose it because it’s a song I sing with Dead & Company and my own band. The interesting part is Kofi only did two gigs where he played Dead and Jerry Garcia Band music. Both of those were with my band, and it’s the last two times I ever played with him. One was on his birthday, and he took a solo on “High Times” that people went crazy over. I knew it was recorded and I tracked it down, but unfortunately it wasn’t a multi-track recording, plus I’d forgotten that Kofi soloed over the verse, whereas on my new version the solo section is at the end, which has different chord changes. I didn’t think we could make it work, but Al said, Let me give it a shot. In the meantime I called an amazing young guitarist I know named Jaden Lehman to take the solo at the end. Right after, Al called me and said he got the solo to work by simply turning Kofi up when he wasn’t clashing with the track and down when he was! I definitely think Kofi helped him cosmically. So we put both versions on the record. The bass substitutions are based off of a riff I came up with at home, changing the root notes to get some new colors in an ECM style.  

“Days Between” starts with an ear-grabbing piano figure that returns as another dramatic ending, rife with chord and bass note substitutions.

That’s a song we do in Dead & Company that I don’t normally sing, but when I was messing around with it on piano I found all this cool stuff, so we tried it and now it’s one of my favorite tracks I’ve ever done. I took the Gsus figure they had and compounded it by playing fourths, including down in the bass. In the modal line at the end, I added a Lydian Major sound every third time around, to give it a more angular, ECM sound, and Tom delivers a like-minded solo on the track. Lyrically, it’s another song that takes you on an emotional ride, talking about how when you get older you appreciate what’s positive about the bittersweet.

“Mission in the Rain” has a deep lyric and a sing-and-play bass solo.

Dennis McNally, a good friend of Jerry Garcia’s, had asked me what songs I was going to record. I told him I wanted to include “Mission,” but I ran out of room. He explained that Jerry had to feel emotionally strong just to play the song because it was like opening a wound. So I thought, well now I have to do it! And I bumped “Comes a Time” to fit it, which is one of my signature songs and what my podcast is named after. But that’s what this album is about, processing pain and not sidestepping it, like I used to do. You stir it up and let it move though you and then you feel better. The solo is a crazy story. After we finished the record I realized I didn’t include any scat-and-play solos, and I’d wanted at least one. So I used vocal part here, which is kind of a solo, and I went in and matched my bass to the vocal, which is actually a lot harder than singing and playing a solo at the same time!

“So Many Roads” adds interesting reharmonizations as the song develops, and has a bass solo with effects.

It’s a great song that I don’t think was played a lot by the Dead. I applied my substitutions according to the lyrics, to color them a certain way. On the second bridge I play two different pedals instead of the eight original chord changes, to create a feeling of suspension, as well as tension and release. It was inspired by the lyric, “The wind inside and the wind outside, tangles in the window blind.” I have to credit Phil Lesh, who is a master of bass substitutions, and feels it’s his responsibility as an artist to perpetually change things up. The way he played with the Dead gave me permission to try things I love to do naturally in Dead & Company. As for the solo sound, I found that by accident twisting knobs on my Boss Reverb Pedal. I did the solo at home on my Modulus for the demo, not thinking it would be on the record, just to fill the solo space with something until we got to Iceland. But Al liked it and convinced me to leave it on.

“Believe It or Not” brings to mind your band, the Peacemakers, with its gospel feel, bass misdirection, and expanded outro.

The song was recommended to me by Kraig Fox, Bob [Weir’s] close friend, and it’s another one the Dead didn’t play often. I added a lot of reharms and bass alterations, especially in the ending, which came about organically and wasn’t planned. The song means a lot to me because I recorded a vocal and piano version for my friend, Dr. Jim Barnette, who succumbed to a rare brain disease, at 59. His wife said it gave him comfort in his final moments.

“China Doll” is stripped down aside from your lead and background vocals and has no solos, but it still captures the vibe of the record.

This was the first song I ever sang with Dead & Company, and it’s the one that hit me the hardest. For years I wondered what was it about the song that captured my imagination so much, and I finally realized I was hearing Mingus playing over it. And there’s a Joni Mitchell connection, too, because she did the album, Mingus [Asylum, 1979]. I think it works this way because of the atmosphere we create. It has that open, ECM quality and it reminds me of the floating mountains and islands in the movie Avatar.   

The closer, “Standing on the Moon,” has the album title in its lyric and a fretless-sounding bass solo over a cool ending vamp.

I always wanted to try this song but honestly it kept defeating me. This time I just sat and sat with it at the piano and finally I got an arrangement together. When we added Tom’s 12-string in the studio it all came together. It’s a track that I honestly think you could listen to without the vocal and it works. But of course lyrically, it’s one of the most epic, visual love songs ever. “A lovely view of heaven, but I’d rather be with you.” I did the solo when I got home from Iceland, on my fretted Modulus. When I use my reverb pedal and play with a lot of vibrato it can sound fretless. I’d been long looking for my solo sound, like the way Jaco used a digital delay in stereo, and I finally realized my sound is simply the 6-string with reverb.

What do you like about the Sandberg California 6-string you’ve been playing on tour?

In an era where vintage basses are all the rage, my Sandberg gets much closer to that vintage Fender sound than any 6-string I’ve ever played, and I think it’s because of how light it is, at seven-and-a-half pounds. It resonates more, it’s more porous. It also has very fat low end. On some 6-strings, the low CC#, and D aren’t as dense, they sound weaker. That never happens on my Modulus and my Fodera, where the notes on the B string sound like a boulder on top of you, and thankfully it’s true of my Sandberg—those notes are like thunder. I have a newer one they built for me which is even lighter, so I have two wide humbuckers in the J-Bass positions, with an Ankh symbol in-between. It gives me even more low end in stadiums.

What else lies ahead for you, especially with Dead & Company officially ending?

I have three projects on deck. One is to finally record my banjo music. I also want to do a gospel record with [vocalist] Alfreda Gerald, [lap and pedal steel guitarist] Roosevelt Collier, and [vocalist/keyboardist] Melvin Seals, that includes some of the tunes that Jerry Garcia’s gospel band was doing. And then I have nine more Grateful Dead ballads to do, using the template of this record. Beyond that, I need to get to Kofi’s music, which I have on his hard drives, plus four years of material I wrote when I lived in Atlanta. But for the rest of this year and early next year I plan to play A Lovely View of Heaven, live.

Sixth Sense

Oteil Burbridge continues to champion the 6-string bass guitar and all of its possibilites, most recently with his excellent bass lesson app, the Ozone [www.jointheozone.com]. On A Lovely View of Heaven, Burbridge’s captivating solo on “Stella Blue” is a prime example of utilizing the instrument’s range and chordal and orchestrational capabilities, while revealing some of Oteil’s favorite fingerboard shapes, intervals, and voicings. He allows, “I’ve always loved the interval of a 6th. Bobby Blue Bland always sang the 6th; Col. Bruce was obessesed with 6ths; and more recently, Tom Guarna showed me [jazz pianist] Barry Harris’ concept of ‘the 6th on the 5th.’”

Ex. 1 contains Burbridge’s 16-bar solo, beginning at 6:57. He cut it in one take at home, after returning from the album sessions in Iceland. He used his Modulus Quantum 6, straight into a 2-channel audio converter, to tape—along with his Boss RV-6 Reverb Pedal. For the opening pickup, Oteil works his way through the E major scale, starting on the 6th and landing on the 3rd, on beat one. He then leaves space in the rest of the measure, remembering the support bass line he played on the full band track, which works it’s way down an Emaj7 chord. That in turn inspires the descending line he plays in bar 2, which has an A Lydian/Amaj7#11 flavor. The pickup in measure 3 demonstrates the expansive range of his 6-string, with a figure that moves from the E to the Cstring, to outline an Emaj9/G# chord.  

After ascending diatonically in bars 4 and 5, Burbridge takes a breath before unleashing a chord-rich, Lydian-loaded, four-bar phrase in measures 6-9. Central here are the seven three-note chord voicings he uses in 7 and 8. They consist of either a minor or major 6th between the lowest note and the middle note, and a perfect 5th between the middle note and the top note, and they can be spelled as follows: EF#6BE6AB6, and A6.

Following nice melodic sequences in bar 10 (descending) and the second half of 11 (ascending), that touch on all the color tones, another ear-grabbing run of seven three-note chords awaits, in 12-13. This time some different shapes occur, as Oteil goes for some tension-and-release dissonance. Specifically, they can be spelled: EB7 (a minor 6th and a flatted 5th as the two stacked intervals), E6E+ or Amin/maj7 (a minor 6th and a raised 5th as the two stacked intervals), BA, and E (with a quick drop to Eb and back up to E, in 13).

One last descending sequence over the bar line of 14 leads to a rising and falling line in octaves, in 14-16—a nod to Burbridge’s Wes Montgomery and Grant Green influences. As is one of his signatures, listen for where Oteil subtly lays back on phrases during the solo, and play the three-note chords with your thumb (downstroke) and index finger (upstroke).


Basses: Sandberg California 6-string; “O-Teal” green Modulus Quantum semi-hollow 6-string; Fodera Signature Monarch 6-string

Strings: D’Addario EXL170-6 Nickel Wound [.32-.45-.65-.80-.100-.130]

Rigs: Epifani UL901 head with various Epifani cabinets

Effects: Boss RV-6 Reverb Pedal, MXR Bass Octave Deluxe, Rowin LT-901 Tuner

Other: JH Audio In-Ear Monitors, Planet Wave Cables, Jenny Shuman straps





Chris Jisi   By: Chris Jisi

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