Grateful Deadication (Blue Note)

Dave McMurray

Released July 16, 2021

AllMusic Favorite Jazz Albums 2021




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 flower empowered 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 that graced his 2018 Blue Note debut, Music Is Life. This time out, bassist Ibrahim Jones and drummer Jeff Canady are joined by guitarist Wayne Gerard and keyboardist Maurice O’Neal, both longtime compatriots from the Motor City scene, as well as pianist Luis Resto and percussionist Larry Fratangelo, colleagues from McMurray’s days in Was (Not Was).

The album also features a special guest appearance by Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir, along with powerhouse vocalist Bettye LaVette and Weir’s Wolf Bros bandmates Don Was, Jay Lane, Jeff Chimenti and 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-Blue Note president Don Was in the uncategorizable Was (Not Was) beginning in 1981. 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, 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 drummer Jay 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 the Wolf Bros,” McMurray explains. “The long-form, odd measures and complex chords of the music hooked me immediately. I noticed the songs had great melodies yet held the openness of Miles Davis’ Electric Period. The music was catchy, psychedelic, raw, with the idea that nobody solos/everybody solos—akin to Weather Report. The more I listened, the more I knew these songs would eventually become a vehicle for 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 right line-up for the project. Grateful Deadication ultimately reimagines nine of the band’s most memorable numbers 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 would know 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 howling expressions 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 1978 album 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 mere seven and a half, but still evokes soaring solos from the bandleader and moves from an anthemic head to an 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 by the 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 like Calamity Jane.’ And she came up with the right attitude. When she sang it, I was shocked at the passion in her voice. I can hear the desperation.”

McMurray’s plaintive wail on the song’s introduction sets the mood for LaVette’s entrance, and the assured presence of Bob Weir and Wolf Bros lends the project the blessing of one of the Dead’s founding members 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 of the World” beams with a sunny Motown vibe that begs for a Marvin Gaye vocal. The song, from 1973’s Wake 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. “Coming from the world that they’re in, it’s a song that they would never have heard otherwise. But we’ve all been playing 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, who McMurray has known since the vocalist’s teens, joins the band for a contemporary R&B reimagining of the band’s MTV-era hit “Touch of Grey,” which is then reprised as a brief, funky instrumental groove. The album’s closing tunes, “Franklin’s Tower” and “The Music Never Stopped,” are both culled from the 1975 classic Blues For Allah. Grateful Deadication is not only a heartfelt celebration of the Grateful Dead’s brilliant songcraft, but the imagination 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.

Track Listing:

1. Fire on the Mountain (Mickey Hart) 06:08

2. Dark Star (William Kreutzmann) 07:34

3. Loser (Jerry Garcia / Robert Hunter) 06:37

4. Estimated Prophet (Robert Hall Weir) 06:58

5. Eyes of the World (Jerry Garcia) 07:11

6. The Eleven (Phil Lesh9 05:37

7. Touch of Grey (Jerry Garcia / Robert Hunter) 05:33

8. Touch of Grey [Instrumental] (Jerry Garcia) 01:56

9. Franklin’s Tower (Jerry Garcia / William Kreutzmann) 06:28

10. The Music Never Stopped (Robert Hall Weir9 06:29


Dave McMurray: tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone (4, 9), flute (5, 8, 19), Roland AE-10 (10), keyboards (1, 2, 4, 6–10), percussion (1, 2, 4, 5, 7–9)

Maurice O’Neal: keyboards, Hammond B-3 (2, 4–9)

Luis Resto: piano (1, 5)

Jeff Chimenti: keyboards (3)

Wayne Gerard: guitars (except 3)

Bob Weir: guitar (3)

Greg Leisz: guitar (3)

Ibrahim Jones: acoustic bass (except 3)

Don Was: bass (3)

Jeff Canady: drums (except 3)

Jay Lane: drums (3)

Larry Fratangelo: percussion (1, 5, 8–10)

Sowande Keita: percussion (2)

Bettye LaVette: vocals (3)

Herschel Boone: vocals, vocal arrangement (7)

Recorded at Funky Joe’s, Brooklyn, NY; Masterpiece Studio, Detroit, MI; The Feeder Loft, Detroit, MI; The Highlife Room, Detroit, MI; TRI Studios, San Rafael, CA

Producer: Dave McMurray and DeAnn Forbes

Engineers: Salar Ansari, Vadim Canby, Derek Featherstone, Carlos Gunn, Dave McMurray, Kenta Yonesaka

Mixing: Elliot Schneider

Mastering: Darcy Proper

Cover Photo: Christopher Wilson

Art Direction: Keith McLenon


Over the last 40 years, Detroit saxophonist Dave McMurray has participated in some remarkable musical projects. He was a member of both vanguard jazz outfit Griot Galaxy and punky funk masters Was (Not Was). He has played on hundreds of sessions with artists ranging from Millie Scott and Bob Dylan to B.B. King and Iggy Pop. He’s issued an eclectic yet consistent body of recordings under his own name including 2003’s Nu Life Stories and 2018’s wonderful Music Is Life. Grateful Deadication was inspired by a 2018 festival appearance with Bob Weir’s Wolf Bros. McMurray loved the knotty time signature shifts, abundant key changes, and spiraling improvisation that recalled (for him) Miles Davis’ electric music. This set is played by a band of Detroit luminaries, some of whom have been working with McMurray for decades. He reimagines ten Grateful Dead tunes, eight as instrumentals.

Opener “Fire on the Mountain” commences with the leader’s synths, Wayne Gerard’s guitar, and Luis Resto’s piano in improvised abstraction. When the melody emerges, McMurray delivers it on tenor sax that he overdubs on the choruses. He emphasizes the original’s reggae vamp, adding a dub dimension anchored by bassist Ibrahim Jones, Larry Fratangelo’s percussion, and Jeff Canady’s drums. The Dead’s monolithic “Dark Star” is executed in a mere seven-and-a-half minutes. McMurray allows the tune’s subtle yet gloriously soulful melody to shine through, and infuses it with a Caribbean rhythm and progressive jazz horns. As the rhythm section wobbles between reggae and funk, McMurray carries it out with a killer tenor break. On “Loser,” he’s accompanied by the Wolf Bros. and Detroit-born Bettye LaVette, who delivers a devastatingly dark and dramatic vocal. McMurray’s tenor fills, underscores, and accents the space around her as if he were her duet partner. Jones, Canady, Gerard, and keyboardist Maurice O’Neal all flow behind the saxophonist on “Estimated Prophet,” adding dubwise jazz vamps to its airy melody and core reggae rhythm. McMurray surprises when his tenor sax delivers the brief instrumental intro to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” in the opening moments of “Eyes of the World.” He doubles on flute as Resto, O’Neal, and Gerard paint a blissed-out jazz backdrop for his soloing. There are two versions of “Touch of Grey”; the vocal take with Herschel Boone gloriously, soulfully, hovers between contemporary R&B, jazz, and smooth Detroit gospel. “Franklin’s Tower” is rendered a rave-up soul instrumental with McMurray holding court on baritone and tenor as Gerard’s bluesy, biting fills frame the reggae-tinged backbeat. Closer “The Music Never Stopped” recalls Grover Washington, Jr.’s killer mid-’70s Kudu sides, but McMurray grafts on spacy, pillowy psychedelia. All emphasize the sometimes hidden but always attractive melodies in the Dead’s tunes; he understands them as songs first. Grateful Deadication is as sophisticated as it is musical in presenting this complex and sometimes speculative music as welcoming, accessible, and danceable.

Thom Jurek (AllMusic)