A mysterious synergy happened to jazz saxophonist Dave McMurray a few years ago.
He was sitting in with the band Wolf Bros, an off-shoot of The Grateful Dead that counts Bob Weir as one of its members, and heard some tunes (“Dark Star,” “Eyes of the World”) that fired him up.
“I thought, man, this is different,” said the Detroit-based musician in an interview from home. “I dove into their catalog, which is vast. When you listen to the Dead, they’ve got thousands of versions online of each song. Each time they play it a little differently. I was attracted to that. They were very creative. It wasn’t like jazz, but they had communication like jazz — it was improvised.”
“Grateful Deadication,” McMurray’s new CD, is the result of that deep dive into the rock and jam band music of The Grateful Dead. Songs include “Loser,” “Estimated Prophet” and “Touch of Grey.” He’ll perform Wednesday and July 22 with a five-piece band at The Gold Room.
“Fire on the Mountain” was the first song he chose for the album. After recording his version of the 1978 hit, but before mixing and finalizing it, he drove around listening to the music in his car. When he pulled up to a grocery store while it was playing, a man getting into the car next to him offered him his cart.
“I said yeah, thanks, and he said, ‘Anything for a guy listening to ‘Fire on the Mountain,’ and drove away,” McMurray said. “My windows were up, and he could hear the song enough to know what it was. That’s what you want. I’m glad he recognized what it was. That was the key — you’re on the right track.”
The 1975 tune “Franklin’s Tower” was another Dead song that grabbed him. Sometimes you start playing a song, and it doesn’t work, for whatever reason, he said, but then there are the songs that work straight away — the melody is catchy and the groove is good.
“Everybody hears music differently, and they’re attracted to different things in music,” McMurray said. “Some people don’t care about melody. Me, I listen to the melody first. I listen to lyrics. I read them. Then I listen to how they play. I look at it like I’m the singer. I want to sing what I’m playing (with my saxophone). I look at songs that are sing-able to me.”
A clarinet loaned to him by his elementary school kicked off McMurray’s musical career. He liked it fine, but the sax was jazzier. And while he wasn’t the most diligent at practicing through his teen years, he loved music and knew it would play a big role in his future.
He went on to pursue a music degree at Detroit’s Wayne State University but changed majors a couple of times — first, to avoid having to play in marching band, and second, because the school ended his program and told him he’d need to finish his senior year at a different college. He refused to do that, so he graduated with a degree in psychology and urban studies.
After school, he worked as a substitute teacher for a while, and then a mental health counselor for a halfway house, while gigging in his off hours. But when an employer told him he couldn’t take time off to play music, he decided to quit the 9 to 5 life and pursue music full time.
Clearly, it worked out.
Through the decades he’s played with some of the biggest names in the business, such as B.B. King, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Bonnie Raitt, Gladys Knight, Albert King, Nancy Wilson and Herbie Hancock.
“I loved music. I listened constantly. It’s how I am now. It’s why I was attracted to the Dead,” McMurray said.
“I like all types of music. I’ll hear myself playing it. If I hear country, I know there’s no sax in it, but I think if there was, I’d do this.”
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