California pianist Holly Bowling first emerged in 2015 with Distillation of a Dream
, a collection of meticulously translated instrumental renditions of Phish
songs. A lifelong follower of the band, the classically trained musician made her own entry into the jam band oeuvre after a now-legendary 2013 live version of their song "Tweezer" (aka "Tahoe Tweezer") inspired her to transcribe the entire 37-minute performance for solo piano. On her follow-up LP, Better Left Unsung
, Bowling applies the same concept to jam band originators the Grateful Dead. Having had a similar "a-ha moment" with a 1974 live recording of the Dead's "Eyes of the World," she began the slow process of adapting a dozen more highlights from their massive canon. More reimaginings than covers, Bowling builds on these often highly improvised works with her own improvisations and suggestions, adding her own dialogue to conversations already in progress. While not always referencing specific versions, she does arrange some classic live pairings like "Help on the Way/Slipknot!/Franklin's Tower" and "Cryptical Envelopment/The Other One." Nor does she shy away from progressive behemoths like a nearly 30-minute "Dark Star" or the entire "Terrapin Station (Suite)," the latter of which lends itself quite well to her fluid treatment. Far more than tribute album, this is the type of studied, ambitious project that could only grow out of this scene's peculiar devotion to both its own history and spirit of exploration. While the Dead had their share of keyboardists, they are generally seen as one of rock's greatest guitar acts. That said, Bowling's beautifully detailed and inventive reworking of this material transcends the instrumentation and carries the torch in a surprising new direction.