Dinner and a Show: Dave McMurray's Grateful Deadication
McMurray has performed with a stunning roster of legendary musicians, including B.B. King, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Hallyday, Gladys Knight, Albert King and Nancy Wilson
Dave McMurray has taken a long, strange trip to arrive at his sophomore release for Blue Note Records.On Grateful Deadication, the saxophonist takes his gritty, soulful Detroit sound and reimagines the flowerempowered songs of San Francisco icons the Grateful Dead with an album as vibrant as it is unexpected.
For this spirited excursion into the Dead’s vast repertoire, McMurray reconvened the rhythm section thatgraced his 2018 Blue Note debut, Music Is Life. This time out, bassist Ibrahim Jones and drummer JeffCanady are joined by guitarist Wayne Gerard and keyboardist Maurice O’Neal, both longtime compatriotsfrom the Motor City scene, as well as pianist Luis Resto and percussionist Larry Fratangelo, colleaguesfrom McMurray’s days in Was (Not Was).
The album also features a special guest appearance by Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir, along withpowerhouse vocalist Bettye LaVette and Weir’s Wolf Bros bandmates Don Was, Jay Lane, Jeff Chimentiand Greg Leisz, for a transcendent version of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s “Loser.”
During the heyday of the Dead’s tireless touring, McMurray was on the road himself, joining now-BlueNote president Don Was in the uncategorizable Was (Not Was) beginning in 1981. McMurray hasperformed with a stunning roster of legendary musicians, including B.B. King, The Rolling Stones, BobDylan, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Hallyday, Gladys Knight, Albert King, Nancy Wilson, KEM,Bootsy Collins, Herbie Hancock, Geri Allen and Bob James.
In 2018 McMurray joined Don Was for an all-star set at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.The performance featured a surprise appearance by Weir, who had recently enlisted Was and drummerJay Lane for his new band Wolf Bros, including a rendition of Dead classic “Days Between.”
“My Grateful Dead adventure began a few years ago when I was lucky enough to play a show with theWolf Bros,” McMurray explains. “The long-form, odd measures and complex chords of the music hookedme immediately. I noticed the songs had great melodies yet held the openness of Miles Davis’ ElectricPeriod. The music was catchy, psychedelic, raw, with the idea that nobody solos/everybody solos—akinto Weather Report. The more I listened, the more I knew these songs would eventually become a vehiclefor my jazz expression.”
The sense of discovery that McMurray relished in listening to the music encouraged him to delve deeper,and over the next three years he pored through the band’s catalogue while experimenting with the rightline-up for the project. Grateful Deadication ultimately reimagines nine of the band’s most memorablenumbers from throughout its storied career.
“I always pick songs that have a melody where, even if I played it by myself on the saxophone, you wouldknow it,” he explains. “So I look for songs that have that magic in them.”
Introduced by an insistent, percussive figure hammered on the piano by Resto, joined by howlingexpressions by McMurray and Gerard, the opening track soon settles into a mesmerizing, breezy take on
“Fire on the Mountain.” The song, written by drummer Mickey Hart, originally appeared on the 1978album Shakedown Street and gets Grateful Deadication off to a buoyantly spiritual start.
“Dark Star” achieved legendary status among Dead disciples as a vehicle for the band’s extended jams,often reaching lengths of 20-30 minutes or more in concert. McMurray’s arrangement clocks in at a mereseven and a half, but still evokes soaring solos from the bandleader and moves from an anthemic head toan insinuatingly groovy solo section with the saxophonist blowing at a taut simmer.
The bluesy “Loser,” Garcia and Hunter’s forlorn tale of an Old West card shark, is movingly rendered bythe heart-wrenching vocal of Bettye LaVette, a fellow Detroit native. “Bettye really listens to lyrics,”McMurray says. “At first she couldn’t get a lock on ‘Loser.’ Then out of nowhere she said, ‘Oh, I'm likeCalamity Jane.’ And she came up with the right attitude. When she sang it, I was shocked at the passionin her voice. I can hear the desperation.”
McMurray’s plaintive wail on the song’s introduction sets the mood for LaVette’s entrance, and theassured presence of Bob Weir and Wolf Bros lends the project the blessing of one of the Dead’s foundingmembers and primary songwriters. “That was a dream,” McMurray says succinctly.
Weir’s “Estimated Prophet,” from 1977’s Terrapin Station, basks in a sultry reggae vibe, while “Eyes ofthe World” beams with a sunny Motown vibe that begs for a Marvin Gaye vocal. The song, from 1973’sWake of the Flood, was one of the pieces that provided the band an entrée into the Dead’s world.
“Everybody walked away singing ‘Eyes of the World’ after we recorded it,” McMurray laughs. “Comingfrom the world that they're in, it's a song that they would never have heard otherwise. But we've all beenplaying together so long and these songs are so great, it all just connected. That's the magic of it.”
Another early jam-focused piece (featured on Live/Dead from 1969), “The Eleven” travels from a sharp,ferocious intro to a balmy Caribbean vibe. GRAMMY-winning Detroit singer Herschel Boone, whoMcMurray has known since the vocalist’s teens, joins the band for a contemporary R&B reimagining ofthe band’s MTV-era hit “Touch of Grey,” which is then reprised as a brief, funky instrumental groove. Thealbum’s closing tunes, “Franklin’s Tower” and “The Music Never Stopped,” are both culled from the 1975classic Blues For Allah.
Grateful Deadication is not only a heartfelt celebration of the Grateful Dead’s brilliant songcraft, but theimagination and soul evident throughout the album exemplify the wide range of McMurray’s influences -from jazz, pop, rock, soul, reggae, R&B, gospel and beyond.Back to Events