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Dave McMurray on Albert King, Don Was and ‘Grateful Deadication’

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photo credit: Chris Wilson

“I knew the gravity of taking this on. People take the Grateful Dead seriously, and I didn’t want to slack on the music,” saxophonist Dave McMurray observes, while describing his new album, Grateful Deadication. McMurray’s second release for Blue Note offers mostly instrumental takes on the Dead’s catalog, along with a particularly striking version of “Loser” that features Bettye LaVette on vocals.

McMurray never saw the Dead back in the day because, as he reveals, “I didn’t know what that was about. I was just gung-ho into what I was doing.” However, he adds, “In recording these songs, I didn’t want to slight anything because I’ve certainly come to appreciate that it’s important to people.”

While the sax player may be best known in jazz circles, he is also a member of the innovative musical collective Was (Not Was), initially appearing on the group’s 1981 self-titled debut album at the behest of future Blue Note label head, Don Was. Over the years, McMurray has also worked with B.B. King, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Bonnie Raitt and many others.

McMurray credits this versatility to his Motor City origins. As he explains: “Detroit is like a mecca of music, all different types of music. When I was growing up, of course I’d hear Motown, but I’d also hear jazz, rock-and-roll and we had a big pop music scene. Trying to be a musician, I’d listen to every type of music and hear myself in it. So if I heard a pop song or a blues song or anything, I’d try to think of what I would do if I was playing that song.

“In Detroit, there might be a festival with Pharoah Sanders and the MC5. I’d look at that and go, ‘Wow, what a crazy combination. That can only happen here, where people like these different types of music.’ I think that was kind of unique to my upbringing. It’s also part of why I never moved. After I started traveling, I still liked coming back home. So I’ve stuck it out through the ups and downs.”

Early in your career, you first made inroads outside of Detroit when you toured with Albert King. How did that come about?

It started with a phone call. Someone I know called me and said, “Hey, Albert King’s in town and he needs a saxophone player.” Of course, I said, yes. When I got there, it turned out that Albert King had a great band, an excellent group of young guys. We were rehearsing at the club, the day of the gig; I’m trying to cram it all in and the guys are looking at me and saying things like, “Hey, man, you sound good. Would you like to continue playing in this situation?” I was like, “Heck, yeah” and they said, “OK, well, we might call you.”

So I did the gig, it turned out great and about a month later, they called me and I played with them for a year and a half. We traveled all over the states—it was Albert King, Bobby Bland and B.B. King. It was a great situation because all three bands were completely different and Albert had the rock audience because people knew that he had influenced Hendrix.

That was a big learning period for me because playing the blues is different. I had all of my jazz things that I was throwing in there and Albert was looking at me. Then later, he said, “You’re playing that jazz shit”—that’s how he put it. He said, “Man, I could play more than you with one note.” Of course, I never argued but, when I listened to him and just watched how people reacted, I realized that he was right. I had a lot to learn. I had to get the blues. So I dove into it and it was a good period for me.

I enjoyed playing in front of that rock audience. Those were the people there to see us and I could feel Albert’s energy. So I was like, “I’ve got to do something like that” to get that kind of energy.

Is that what drew you to Was (Not Was)?

What happened was my bass player got a call from Don to do the first Was (Not Was) record. He didn’t know what to call it, so he told me, “I got called for a New Wave session.” Then, after he did it, he came back and started talking about how musical it was. I was like, “Dang, I want to do it.”

Then, Don called me to do a session and it changed everything. At the time, I was a working musician around Detroit. I had a funk session that day with Bootsy Collins—and I was feeling good about it—and then Don’s session started at midnight.

I didn’t know what to expect but, when I went in there, he didn’t play me any music; all he played me was the drums and the bass. Then he said, “Just solo,” but he didn’t want normal soloing. He knew how I played, so he wanted me to be kind of avant-garde. I didn’t even know what the songs were. He would just go from song to song and I would play the parts, but I never heard the vocals.

Then, when I finally heard what he had done, I was shocked. There were rock guitars and Sweat Pea [Atkinson’s] quintessential straight-up soul vocals. It was just a cool situation. And Don had this whole plan about how we were going to record and then go on the road and do this and that. In my mind, I thought, “Yeah, everybody says they’re going to do that.” But, he actually did it. The next thing I knew, we’re doing gigs and then we’re in a band on the road.

Were the subsequent albums recorded the same way, just piecing it together?

No, that was just the first record. Once there was a core of people, we were a little bit more conventional—at least when it came to the recording process. This was the era when I watched Don become Don Was. We continued to record in the same studio—Sound Suite in Detroit—and he would get groups coming in from London who wanted him to produce them. I can still remember these British guys showing up at the door in Detroit and going, “We’re looking for Don Was.” We were like, “Wow, this is getting bigger.” But my meeting Don definitely changed everything because I became part of the circle. So, whenever the situation needed a sax, he would call me.

Those Was (Was Not) records are fascinating because, at a time in the ‘80s when genres were starting to become so ossified, the music didn’t conform to a single style.

At the beginning, the way Don explained it to me was it would sound like if you had a funk band and Elvin Jones was playing drums and Joe Henderson was playing sax. I thought it was the craziest idea that I’d ever heard. But it was intriguing.

From the beginning of the group, he was pulling in all of his influences. And you can see how wide his palette was with all the different kinds of music he produced. I found that out early on when I would get into his car. One day, he might be listening to some Blue Note music and then, the next day, it’s Waylon Jennings. So he had all these different influences, just like me, and I liked that—and it’s a relationship that still continues to this day.

Since you mentioned Blue Note, can you recall your reaction when you learned that Don had become president of the label?

It was a complete shock to me. The thing is, though, that he didn’t go in there for that job. He wasn’t trying to get it; it just kind of came to him. I can remember that he said to me, “I don’t know how long I’m gonna last, but we’re going to do something.” And it took a minute because they had all these acts on the label, but when it happened, he said, “OK, Dave, what do you got?” That was his thing. He didn’t tell me what to do.

It was a really fun challenge to think about what I wanted to do for my first one with Blue Note. I took my time to think about a concept. What I eventually decided was that, since everybody has a quartet, I wanted to break it down to a trio but no chords. So that’s how I got to the trio situation [on 2018’s Music Is Life].

Then, the same thing happened with the second record. I asked myself: “Now what am I going to do?” I didn’t want to do another trio record; I wanted to do something different. That’s how I got to the Grateful Dead thing.

Was there a lightbulb moment when you came to that decision?

It started when we did the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco [on 10/6/18]. This was one of Don’s aggregations with Terence Blanchard, Lenny Castro and a bunch of great jazz musicians. Bob Weir was part of it and we did the song “Days Between,” which I had not heard before. When I saw the chart, it had these odd measures and it was kind of just different. We rehearsed the day before the show, and I thought it was incredible—the song had such a mood and was just such a hypnotic thing. Then when we did it at the festival, it was packed with people as far back as you could see, and they were hypnotized. That was my moment where I was like, “Wow, I gotta investigate this a little bit, just to see what’s going on with it.”

Then, the next year, Don told me he was doing a group with Bob Weir called the Wolf Bros. When Don told me they were coming to Detroit, he invited me to sit in so I started going on YouTube and listening to the music. I started seeing people like Branford Marsalis playing with them. From there, I learned that other saxophone players, like Ornette Coleman and David Murray, had played with them and I was like, “Man, this is very intriguing.” Then, when I went and sat in with them at the Fox Theater, it was great. There was so much room for me to play, and the music would go somewhere different than I expected.

One of the first songs we did was “Eyes of the World,” and I’m thinking in my mind, “It’s going to go to this chord.” But, then there would be a key change and it would go somewhere else.

So I decided to dive in and I told Don about it. He liked the concept but he told me: “You can do whatever you want.”

One of the first ones I did was “Dark Star” and I liked the way it turned out. The band didn’t know much about the Grateful Dead, so I was the one pushing the issue. We went in and learned it and then I said, “OK, that’s enough.” I didn’t want to get perfect with it.

There are millions of versions of that song and I might have listened to all of them but we worked from the single version because you can hear the melody, which is great. Melody is my big thing and Jerry Garcia wrote strong melodies and you can know what song it is even without the vocals.

So we started from that point in the studio and we counted it out. We had what we’d practiced and then everything just ebbed and flowed.

It really started from there. I went through the catalog. and I’d think, “OK, I need a fast song. Now, I need a dark song. This has a good groove. This is kind of funky.” So I’d add what we needed and we’d go in and record it. Pretty soon, I had 10 songs.

What I also discovered is that Robert Hunter wrote incredible lyrics. Even though I play the saxophone, I’m a lyric person, too. A song might have a happy groove but it might not necessarily have happy lyrics, which is some of the magic.

Did you go back and listen to any of those sax players to help you prepare?

I intentionally didn’t listen to David Murray. I know David Murray well and I love his playing, but I didn’t listen to what he did with them because I didn’t want that to influence my approach. I definitely listened to what Branford was doing when he played with them—not so much as an influence, but more like I was wishing I had seen him play with them. I found it really intriguing that someone like Branford, who can be a serious jazz snob, was playing with the Grateful Dead. I thought it was very interesting that he had accepted it but, beyond all those melodies in the music, I think the improvisational part just pulled him in.

I should add that I listen to jazz radio and they had been playing Jerry Garcia. He had a record that he did with David Grisman. I don’t know if you would call it jazz, but they played it on jazz radio in Detroit. I didn’t know that much about it but I do remember thinking, “This is Jerry Garcia and he’s on jazz radio. That’s intriguing. How did he get there?” I just thought he must love music to even do a record that jazz radio would play. And that’s what I love—the melding of music—because they all fit together. If you can hear it in your mind, they can fit together.

On Grateful Deadication, you present two arrangements of “Touch of Grey,” a slower one with vocals and a more upbeat instrumental version. What prompted that choice?

“Touch of Grey” was the first major song that I remember hearing because, at the beginning of MTV, that video was on all the time. I kept seeing those skeletons playing instruments. [Laughs.] When I first heard it, I thought it was catchy but when I was trying to pick songs for this record, I was like, “I don’t know if I need to do that one because it was such a big song.”

Then, I decided to try a different kind of a take, so I thought about slowing it down. Also, I’d had Herschel Boone sing on every record I’ve done, except for the trio record. He’s a singer that I’ve known for years. He’s one of those guys who’s got perfect pitch. He’s a great singer and is very open-minded toward songs. So I played it for him and he was into it. He told me, “Yeah, I can hear that.”

So we went in to do the slow version but then I realized that I wanted to play the fast version. I thought, “I’m just going to go in and play the groove.” My original idea was to do a trio version— no melody, just go and blast it away, playing on that groove. But, then it kind of took on a life of its own. My keyboard player was like, “I can hear this” and, pretty soon, there was another whole thing. So I was like, “I’ve got to use it; I’ve got to have that second groove.”

I’m so glad I did because, when I’ve been doing it live, I combine them. I don’t have a vocalist but I’m playing the melody. So I start off playing it slow. I’ve got a long arrangement and then I end up playing the song fast with the melody and I go off into improvisation and it works. It’s been really cool on the gigs because, when I’m playing the slow part, most people don’t know what it is at first. And then we speed up the tempo and it locks them in. It’s turned into one of my favorites.

How did you select “The Eleven,” which is another highlight?

At one point, while I was in the middle of recording, somebody I know asked me what song I was going to do next. He asked me if I’d heard “The Eleven” and I told him I hadn’t. So he told me to listen and let him know what I thought. This is a guy who knows me and knows I’ve played in a lot of avant-garde situations, and he thought I’d appreciate it. So I went to it, and I was like, “What the heck? What is this?” I went to all the versions I could find of it and, of course, they were completely different. But I heard this guitar part, and I decided that I would grab that first. When I heard certain other aspects of the song, I’d say, “I’m gonna grab that too.” Then, I heard the groove and I was like, “Oh, I could do this kind of African-ish thing here and then I can play the melody.”

So I worked with the rhythm section to try to put it all together. We kept at it until I had them grooving and they could feel it. Then, it was time for me to try to do that melody because “The Eleven” has this crazy melody with two guys singing in harmony. I decided to play both parts of it and that’s when it really started to come together. And when we finally did it, everybody had this smile on their face like, “We made it; we made it to the end.”

And it ended up being accepted. Everybody’s mentioning it, which is a surprise. I played it the other night and I thought, “If I play this, these people are going to stop dancing.” But, of course, they didn’t. [Laughs.] It just made them dance harder. I was like, “Wow, I love this.”

That’s another thing I’ve enjoyed about the whole project—I’m playing in front of people who are standing up. That doesn’t happen in jazz clubs. I love that people are standing up while they’re watching me and they’re moving and they’re into it. The solos and the improvisational music don’t blow them out. They’ll hear me solo—I’ll go crazy—and they’ll be right there with me, dancing. It’s been really gratifying so far.

Beyond “Touch of Grey,” the other song with vocals on the record is Bettye LaVette’s remarkable interpretation of “Loser.” Had you crossed paths with her back in Detroit?

I have a couple of friends who played with her but I didn’t know her at all. Originally, when I knew I was going to do a vocal song, I was thinking of Sweet Pea. I didn’t have the song yet, but my plan was to have him sing. And then, when he passed unexpectedly last year, I didn’t know what to do. I was talking with my manager and she said, “What about Bettye LaVette?” I said, “Whoa, that could be good. That’s got a vibe.” But the funny part is that Don made the same suggestion and I was like, “OK, two people came up with the same person, that means something.”

So we reached out to her and she was like, “Why me? What do I know about that song?” She gets into songs like I do and really listens to the lyrics and gets all into it. And, while we were talking about it, all of sudden, it clicked and she said, “Oh, I’m like Calamity Jane.”

Then, when she’s sang it, I was floored. She delivered the magic and brought a different life to the lyrics.

And talk about wearing Detroit on your sleeve. She lives in New York and New Jersey but she is a Detroiter through and through. She told me that her band members are from Detroit. When you’re from Detroit, you just kind of have that thing. She delivered big time.

Bob Weir is also on that track. Did he offer you any advice about approaching the material?

No, I didn’t speak with him about the project. The times when I had been around him, I wasn’t even thinking about it yet. I think the reason that we were able to get him was because of Bettye’s vocal. I had asked Don whether it might be possible to have him on the record, and he said maybe, but it went on for a while. Then, when he heard her, I think that was the thing that got him on the song. Her vocal was incredible and then he added the final touch—the magic—to the whole album.

I knew he liked the song, but I didn’t know what he thought about the rest of it. In a situation like this, when you’re doing somebody’s music, it can go either way. They can hate it or they can like it. Then he tweeted about the CD and I was floored. That was the final blessing for the project.

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