Saxophonist Dave McMurray Reimagines the Grateful Dead's Music

Dave McMurray plays the music of the Grateful Dead over two nights at So Many Roads Brewery.
Dave McMurray plays the music of the Grateful Dead over two nights at So Many Roads Brewery. Chris Wilson
Since playing on Was (Not Was)’s 1981 self-titled debut, Detroit saxophonist Dave McMurray went on to perform and record with legends like the Rolling Stones, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and many others. Over the past four decades, McMurray has been involved in a number of albums that Was (Not Was) co-founder Don Was has produced.

For nearly a decade, Was has also been president of famed jazz label Blue Note, which issued McMurray’s 2018 Blue Note debut, Music Is Life. That same year, McMurray took a deep dive into the catalogue of the Grateful Dead after performing with Was, who had recently been recruited by Dead guitarist and singer Bob Weir to be part of his trio Bob Weir and Wolf Bros.

Also in 2018, McMurray sat in with Weir, Was trumpeter Terence Blanchard, drummer Kendrick Scott and others during a rendition of the Dead’s “Days Between” for San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

McMurray remembers seeing the chart for “Days Between,” noticing its long-form weird time signatures. At first he didn’t understand the tune, but he later realized, while driving in his car, that it reminded him of Miles Davis's late-’60s/early-’70s jazz-rock fusion era or Weather Report.

Then McMurray waded into the Dead’s vast catalogue, eventually realizing that he needed to make an album himself of all-Dead renditions. That album is Grateful Deadication, which dropped on July 16; it's his second recording for Blue Note. McMurray, along with the same lineup on the album (bassist Ibrahim Jones, drummer Jeff Canady, guitarist Wayne Gerard and keyboardist Maurice O’Neal), will perform many of the songs from the release over two nights at the Dead-centric venue So Many Roads on Friday, July 23, and Saturday, July 24.

When choosing what to include on the ten-track Grateful Deadication, McMurray focused on songs that had strong melodies. And it’s the melodies that people have reacted to — like staff members at a club who heard his and his band’s instrumental take on “Dark Star.”

“All the people who were working at the place came out,” McMurray says. “They were just listening by kind of staring at us. And I’m like, ‘Do they like this?”’ But everybody that worked there started clapping. Every time we play it, people have just been kind of hypnotized, even if there's not an audience that's your total Dead audience. Some people know it, some people don't, but it still gets a great reaction, and that's the power of the song.”

At that same gig, the band also played “The Eleven,” and McMurray says audience members were looking at the band, trying to figure out if they recognized the song, maybe wondering if it was just a crazy song “or if they're looking to see if we were going to mess it up. But it was a great reaction, and I'm excited about it.”

He also realized the power of the Dead’s music a few months ago as he pulled into a grocery store parking lot, car windows up, while listening to rough mixes of Grateful Deadication. After he got out of his car, a guy offered him a shopping cart, saying he recognized McMurray’s take on “Fire on the Mountain.”

McMurray thought, "Okay, that's good. Even outside of the car, he could recognize it. That’s a good sign.”

In addition to buoyant instrumental takes on “Fire on the Mountain,” “Dark Star,” “Estimated Prophet,” “Eyes of the World” and “Franklin’s Tower,” R&B singer Herschel Boone guests on “Touch of Grey,” and Weir and Wolf Bros and singer Bettye LaVette appear on the album’s lead single, “Loser.”

While McMurray had hoped to have Sweat Pea Atkinson on the album, the R&B singer, who had been a member of Was (Not Was), passed away in May 2020, before McMurray began recording. Both Was and McMurray then decided to bring in LaVette.

“I was amazed, because she really got into that lyric, and she's singing it with so much depth,” McMurray says. “I hadn't even really listened to it that deeply [before recording it]. You can hear all the desperation and everything in the lyrics. She did a great job.”

While most of the album is instrumental, with the multifaceted McMurray working in his various influences, including jazz, soul, rock, reggae and more, he still thought about the lyrics when he recorded the tracks.

“I'm a melody guy.” McMurray says. “I love melody. So when I'm playing, I feel like I'm the singer.”

McMurray says some of the Dead’s songs might sound happy, but after digging into the lyrics, he discovered there could be some dark songs, like the 1987 track “Touch of Grey,” which he heard many times since seeing the video on MTV.

“You could not get away from it,” he says. “But when you really listen to the lyrics, it's like, ‘Whoa, that’s not a happy song, necessarily.'”

When choosing tracks for Grateful Deadication, McMurray says he sometimes listened to the studio version first and then various live versions or vice versa in order to figure out his own take on the Dead material. He’d listen for inflections in Jerry Garcia or Weir’s voices and try to emulate them on the saxophone, essentially “singing” the lyrics on his instrument.

McMurray, 63, grew up in the melting pot of Detroit during the ’60s and ’70s, listening to jazz legends like John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Yusef Lateef. He steeped himself in Motown and tried to hear himself play along to whatever was on the radio at the time, like the Byrds or the Turtles.

McMurray, who also worked with the MC5’s Wayne Kramer and Kid Rock, has mastered many different genres over the past five decades — making him an in-demand studio player — while also releasing seven albums under his own name.

Listeners might hear echoes of those various genres during his two-night run at So Many Roads — the band’s first time playing material from Grateful Deadication live in a non-jazz venue.

Dave McMurray: Grateful Deadication, 9 p.m. Friday, July 23, and Saturday, July 24, So Many Roads Brewery, 918 West First Avenue, $15. 
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon