Soul Saxophonist Dave McMurray Colorfully Reimagines The Grateful Dead on ‘Grateful Deadication’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

For his second Blue Note release, Detroit soulful saxophonist, Dave McMurray, who some have compared to Grover Washington Jr., takes a stunning turn with an album of Grateful Dead material, Grateful Deadication. Yes, this is unexpected for a jazz musician until one steps back and thinks a little more about the associations. After all, Blue Note President Don Was plays in Bob Weir’s band Wolf Bros. That’s where the connection began.

During the height of the Dead’s touring in the ‘80s McMurray joined Was on the road in the band Was (Not Was) beginning in 1981. Skip ahead to 2018 when McMurray joined Was for an all-star set at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. That performance featured a surprise appearance by Weir when the group played the Dead tune “Days Between.” That tune, with its complex time signatures and long forms, reminded McMurray of Miles, or Soft Machine, or Weather Report and thus began a three-year immersion into the music of the Dead.

The nine tunes here cover a wide span of the Dead’s recording history reaching from the ‘60s “Dark Star” and “The Eleven” to the ‘80s with “Touch of Grey.” McMurray experimented with the right lineup for the project, ultimately landing on the rhythm section, acoustic bassist Ibrahim Jones and drummer Jeff Candady, that appeared on his 2018 Blue Note debut, Music Is Life. They are joined by fellow Detroiters guitarist Wayne Gerard and keyboardist Maurice O’Neal.  Pianist Luis Resto and percussionist Larry Fratangelo hearken back to the saxophonist’s tenure with Was (Not Was). In addition, as you may already know from the single and video “Loser,” vocalist Bettye LaVette, along with Bob Weir, Don Was, and Wolf Bros bandmates Jay Lane, Jeff Chimenti, and Greg Leisz step in for that one tune in a bluesy take that veers from the original as LaVette sings it with her signature strip-away-any-pretense angst. 

Kicking off the album is longtime live staple “Fire on the Mountain.”  While the Deadheads will at first feel somewhat stranded without the vocal, Resto’s pounding piano and Gerard’s guitar eventually lead to a lengthy exploratory solo from the leader, not unlike the kind that Garcia would take. Speaking of extended jamming or soloing, the archetype of such, “Dark Star,” follows, weighing in here at a mere seven and a half minutes. This writer and many readers have assuredly seen this tune go near 30 minutes at a Dead show. Again, McMurray holds court with a long solo, this one evoking more of the kind of soulful slow lower register simmer that he’s known for. 

McMurray mostly gravitated to the Dead albums of the ‘70s, arguably their peak period, but stayed away from the two mostly highly acclaimed gems, the largely acoustic Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, sourcing instead from three other albums beginning with “Estimated Prophet” from 1977’s Terrapin Station, adding a reggae touch as he plays both tenor and baritone saxes. Here, as he does on several others, McMurray also plays keyboards and percussion. Gerard, O’Neal, and McMurray add several electronic “whooshes” for psychedelic effect. “Eyes of the World” from 1973’s Wake of the Flood takes on the kind of Motown vibe we associate with Marvin Gaye and McMurray adds flute to his soulful tenor. McMurray closes out the album with spacey, multiple keyboards for versions of “Franklin’s Tower” and “The Music Never Stopped,” both from 1975’s Blues for Allah, with the leader playing all keys on the latter.

McMurray’s blowing reaches feverish peaks on “The Eleven” from 1969’s Live/Dead before eventually emerging into a bright, danceable Afro-Caribbean vibe as it goes out. “Touch of Grey” has both a vocal and instrumental version, with Grammy-winning Detroit singer Herschel Boone taking the MTV-era hit (the only Dead one of that ilk) into contemporary R&B territory with layered vocals and a slower, steady rhythm while the less than two minute faster paced instrumental version finds McMurray blowing a tenor storm while adding flute, keys, and percussion to his arsenal.  

Throughout his career McMurray has played in several genres and most find a home here whether it be soul, reggae, rock, jazz, or funk.  In that sense, it’s not much different than the Dead as this writer recalls an Etta James New Year’s Eve date at Winterland in the ‘80s where she proclaimed The Dead as “the best blues band on earth.”  So, having McMurray do an ostensible jazz album of Dead tunes is not any further afield than that. And he clearly puts his own stamp on these tunes.

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3 Responses

  1. Jim,

    Instead of spending three long paragraphs connecting David Murray’s “unexpected” turn to the music of the Grateful Dead – by connecting him through label president Don Was, Bob Weir and assorted other players – why not instead just reference the David Murray Octet’s PREVIOUS release of Grateful Dead covers, 1996’s “Dark Star: The Music of the Grateful Dead?” I get it if you’re paid by the word.

  2. Jeff – David McMurray is not David Murray. The referenced David Murray Octet album is a real jazz record!

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