Blue Note Records B003346902
Detroit-based jazz saxophonist Dave McMurray has crossed genres throughout his career, appearing on record and in performance with a variety of artists, including Albert King, Nancy Wilson, Geri Allen, and Iggy Pop. He was an original member of Was (Not Was), a group that itself resisted categorization, so it’s not surprising that Don Was, a founder-member of the band and current president of Blue Note Records, would bring him to the venerable jazz label. McMurray’s first release for Blue Note was Music Is Life (2018).
Over the last few years, McMurray has sat in with Bob Weir & Wolf Bros, a trio led by the Grateful Dead singer-guitarist. The group also included Don Was, and McMurray was impressed by the “long-form, odd measures and complex chords of the music.” The music the Wolf Bros played was, of course, the Grateful Dead’s, and McMurray has reimagined some of the Dead’s tunes on his second Blue Note album, Grateful Deadication.
The opening 30 seconds of “Fire on the Mountain,” a Mickey Hart–Robert Hunter tune from the Dead’s 1978 album Shakedown Street, are a swirl of rock, jazz, and psychedelia that soon gels into a funky, reggae-style romp. Jeff Canady’s drums set a strong groove as McMurray stretches out on tenor sax over several choruses without running out of steam or ideas. He adds some multitracked sax lines in counterpoint to fill out the arrangement, and he and Larry Fratangelo give the track some additional layers of rhythm on percussion.
The lineup on “Loser,” a song Jerry Garcia recorded on his first solo album, Garcia (1972), includes Weir, Was, guitarist Greg Leisz, and singer Bettye LaVette, whose soulful vocals give the track its bite and heart. McMurray’s R&B chops are on full display, and the rest of the band gives LaVette just what she needs to bring the song across. Herschel Boone is the featured singer on McMurray’s smooth R&B arrangement of “Touch of Grey,” the Dead’s only Top 40 hit. Boone’s vocals, especially his multitracked harmonies on the chorus, combine with McMurray’s hard-edged solos to keep the tune from veering into sappiness.
McMurray isn’t so married to the Dead’s original versions of the songs that he refuses to use them as a takeoff point for new interpretations. He brings in his version of “Dark Star”—a tune the Dead were known to play for up to half an hour—at less than eight minutes. McMurray follows the tune’s structure and lets it travel through permutations of jazz, funk, and psychedelia. He stays true to the spirit of the song’s history while bringing something fresh to it. “The Music Never Stopped” becomes a slice of soul jazz in the style of Grover Washington Jr., and is all the better for it.
Many of the players on Grateful Deadication are Detroit musicians that McMurray has worked with over the years, and they share the saxophonist’s sense of adventure and inventiveness. McMurray’s sax wails on his version of Phil Lesh’s “The Eleven,” minus Robert Hunter’s lyrics, and Ibrahim Jones’s popping acoustic-bass lines help drive him along. McMurray gives “Estimated Prophet” a soul-jazz reading, with guitarist Wayne Gerard providing a Garcia-tinged solo that employs an envelope filter, a guitar effect Garcia invented. Pianist Luis Resto gives McMurray a luxurious backing on “The Music Never Stopped,” which McMurray opens with a clever quote from the sax intro to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
Largely recorded in Detroit, Grateful Deadication has a lively, clean sound, with plenty of low-frequency energy—Jones’s bass and Canady’s drums punched through powerfully. I occasionally wished for more soundstage depth to let the music bloom more, but overall I found the disc to be sonically pleasing.
While McMurray and crew have captured some of the spirit of the Dead, Grateful Deadication has a pronounced dance-floor feel, in contrast to the Dead’s often free-flowing rhythmic approach. It’s an accessible album that brings something new to the Grateful Dead’s songs while embracing the band’s sense of joy and freedom. Its music has rarely sounded as resolutely soulful as this.
. . . Joseph Taylor