Covering the Dead means a whole lot more than just playing the tunes; to give their songs credibility, there also needs to be a recreation of their spirit. That Dave McMurray has it in spades is immediately apparent from the first few bars of “Fire on the Mountain,” the opening track on his new album Grateful Deadication. That faithful dancing-bear swagger, halfway between a lope and a canter, is indubitably present, correct and reporting for duty. Few bands have such an unmistakable footprint, and to reproduce that–and with your own voice, yet–is little short of remarkable.
McMurray’s “voice” is his saxophone, predominately tenor, and a thing of beauty it is, as is Grateful Deadication as a whole. McMurray is the real deal, a dyed in the wool jazzman with a long and parallel career in sessions; it is his sax on records as diverse as the Stones’ Voodoo Lounge and Brian Wilson’s I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.
Remarkably, he had never really heard the Dead and their music until a chance encounter with Bob Weir, leading to his playing alongside him and the Wolf Bros at 2019’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. Intrigued by the odd chord structures and quirky time signatures that litter the songs of the Dead, McMurray immersed himself in their back catalog. He found he was able to fully get into their music, and to appreciate its closeness to the jazz of artists he had greater awareness of–Miles Davis, Weather Report, even Soft Machine.
This, in turn, led to Grateful Deadication, which features his own regular sidemen as well as cameos from Bettye LaVette and Weir, and is his second album for acclaimed jazz label Blue Note. (His first, Music Is Life, featured a cover of the White Stripe’s “Seven Nation Army.”)