Album review

Dave McMurray – ‘Grateful Deadication’

Dave McMurray – Grateful Deadication
(Blue Note. Album review by John Bungey)

A jazz saxophonist playing Grateful Dead tunes? We’ve been here before – during the band’s life such illustrious hornmen as Charles Lloyd, Branford Marsalis and David Murray joined them on stage to help entertain America’s counter-cultural hordes. Murray went on to make an album of tunes by the daddy of all jam bands shortly after the group’s demise in 1995.

Now, perhaps confusingly, saxophonist Dave McMurray, once a player with the alt. disco band Was (Not Was) among many others, offers his sunny take on the Dead. McMurray warmed to the group’s mix of rock, country, bluegrass, jazz, psychedelia and tie-dye while playing with former Dead guitarist Bob Weir.

Although the band was once famed for cosmic improvisations (lots of noodling spiced with moments of magic), McMurray hones in on the band’s pop side, serving to remind that if Jerry Garcia and co had laid off the jazz cigarettes and played the industry game(*) they had the hooky tunes to have been Top 40 regulars.

In his simpler arrangements, McMurray, a big-toned, muscular tenorist, plays the vocal lines, inserts a modal solo or two and funkifies the rhythm – as on The Music Never Stopped or Estimated Prophet. The failsafe three-chord crowd-pleaser Franklin’s Tower bubbles away happily and features a lovely acoustic bass solo. Eyes of the World strays towards Smooth FM until some mildly disruptive wah-wah guitar.

There are more adventurous takes: reimagining the band’s bona-fide 1987 hit single Touch of Grey as a creamy nu-soul ballad, crooned by Herschel Boone, is certainly daring. Perhaps to appease pony-tailed nostalgics, the tune then returns as a brief, hard-blowing instrumental. The Eleven acquires a calypso groove and for a moment threatens to become Smokey Robinson’s Tears of a Clown. Their signature interstellar ramble Dark Star (video below) is kept tethered by a backbeat as guitar and sax state the verses. The big, bouncy arrangement is effective though, climaxing with a lovely guitar-sax dialogue. The only other vocal track is a soulful version of Loser, moodily performed by Bettye LaVette. She’s a better singer than Garcia (though that’s not a high bar). If you listen carefully you can hear Bob Weir’s singular guitar voicings on this one.

Grateful Deadication is a fun album, smartening up the Dead’s quirky tunes and pushing them further towards the dancefloor. It’s not exactly jazz – for that try David Murray’s Dark Star: The Music of the Grateful Dead from 1996, or guitarist Henry Kaiser’s splendid twenty-minute mash-up of Dark Star and A Love Supreme on Eternity Blue – bonkers but it works.

(*) OK, that wasn’t going to happen

Grateful Deadification is released on 16 July 2021

LINK: Blue Note Store

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