July 15, 2021

Dave McMurray

Dave McMurray stops by to talk about his career, the music scene in Detroit, how he got turned onto the Grateful Dead and his new album "Grateful Deadication" on Blue Note Records.

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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 percussionistLarry 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 Wasin 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.”



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Dave McMurray:  Can you hear me?

LP:                        I can hear you. How are you, sir?

Dave McMurray:  I’m doing very good. How are you?

LP:                        I’m doing quite well. I’m doing quite well.

Dave McMurray:  Cool.

LP:                        Are you somewhere safe?

Dave McMurray:  Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. [Laughs] Definitely.

LP:                        [Laughs] Well thank you for taking the time.

Dave McMurray:  Where are you? Where are you located?

LP:                        I am just south of Seattle.

Dave McMurray:  OK, cool, cool. I love that area.

LP:                        I’ll tell you we’re going through a crazy heat wave up here right now unlike – the weather up here is not normally this extreme. But I’ll say it’s beautiful though.

Dave McMurray:  Because I saw it was like places was like 100. I was like what? That’s a lot. [Laughs]

LP:                        It’s a lot.

Dave McMurray:  So is there any delay or anything in that way? So is it a delay when we’re talking or is it all right?

LP:                        It’s OK. You were dropping out a little bit there.

Dave McMurray:  OK. That’s what I was wondering because it’s usually better when I use my phone with WIFI but if it’s not, I’m going to switch. It’s usually better though.

LP:                        Yeah. Let’s go for a minute and see what happens. Can you hear OK?

Dave McMurray:  Am I dropping out? OK, cool. Yeah, I hear you good. Yeah, I hear you good.

LP:                        All right, I think we’re good. Well thank you. It’s great to meet you. I appreciate you making time to talk.

Dave McMurray:  Good to meet you.

LP:                        Yeah, thank you.

Dave McMurray:  I appreciate you.

LP:                        I’m really eager to talk to you about the current project but I was hoping maybe I could dial back in time a little bit and just talk to you a little bit about Detroit.

Dave McMurray:  OK. For sure. I’m born and raised in Detroit. I feel like I’ve been here forever, you know.

LP:                        Yeah. Is that where you’re still based?

Dave McMurray:  Yeah, I’m still here. I’m still her because at a certain point I didn’t have a reason to leave because I traveled a lot and this was my home. So I just stayed in Detroit and I just made this my base. And I’m glad I did actually so it’s good. And I watched it go up, down and back up again.

LP:                        And it’s back, huh? Detroit’s back.

Dave McMurray:  Yeah, it’s doing pretty good. I mean, you know, the pandemic everything is down now but it’s definitely on the way up. I mean over the last couple of years it’s been great. There’s lots of new things. The music is flourishing, lots of young musicians. You know, it’s been good. But, you know, everything is just opening now – you know, again. You know? I think in two days it’s going to open completely.

LP:                        Yeah, same thing here. Same thing here.

Dave McMurray:  But Detroit, hopefully it can catch up quickly after this you know.

LP:                        Maybe it leveled the playing field for everybody.

Dave McMurray:  Yeah, it kind of did in a lot of ways, too really. But the music thing has been good because, you know, you’re suffering in a sense that you can’t [unintelligible 00:04:32] the last couple years a lot of recording, a lot of music’s been going on. It seems like every musician I know is recording.

LP:                        Yeah, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. When you were coming up, who were your guys? What were you listening to? What were you going to see? Such a melting pot there for music.

Dave McMurray:  Yeah, it was. When I first was able to go to concerts it would be everybody from Parliament Funkadelic to Miles Davis, Weather Report. You know, I was really kind of into [unintelligible 00:05:05] kind of things. And we had a lot of small venues that would bring in Ornette Coleman, you know, Edward Jones. And the place probably held 100 people so I would be this close to them. You know? I would get in by setting up chairs. So I got a chance to see some great concerts. And that was my music. Anything that was just kind of eclectic – Sly and the Family Stone. Just kind of energetic music. I always liked that.

                              And Detroit was cool because it had a jazz scene that was kind of creative and it had a rock scene that was also creative. And then in the 80s we got the techno thing going on. So it was just a great music – like anytime, any kind was going on around here. You know?

LP:                        Yeah. When you were a kid coming up, were any of those old cats still around? Like were the Jones Brothers around? There was Yusef Lateef there. Did anybody still leave there or did they all leave?

Dave McMurray:  No, no, no, no. By that time, that were all gone. They were all gone. But they still had their allegiance to Detroit so I could see them. But it was a new crop of musicians that were from that. So we had our mentors of like – I don’t know if you’ve probably heard of him – Marcus Belgrave. I don’t know if you heard of him.

LP:                        Oh, sure.

Dave McMurray:  He played with Ray Charles and [unintelligible 0:06:33] but he was like a mentor to everyone. It was a whole scene around here of that. So, you know, I was able to go play probably by the time I was 18 I was sitting in, playing all over town. You know? Because it was actually music everywhere at that time. You know? It was just open, you know. So that was a good creative point.

                              But it’s getting kind of like that now. That’s what I was going to say where it’s a good crop of younger musicians and younger creative musicians who are probably 20 that are good. I mean, you know, and they’re taking on the jazz tradition or beyond. And that’s a good thing. You know? That keeps the music growing, you know.

LP:                        Yeah, that’s exciting. That’s exciting. So I have to ask you about a couple of the folks you played with before I – I want to do some justice to your discography and your resume before we talk about your journey into Grateful Dead land. Could you tell me a little bit about working with Geri Allen? Could you tell me a little bit about working with Geri Allen?

Dave McMurray:  Geri Allen, yeah, she’s one of my favorites. It’s funny because Geri, when I met her, she was still in high school and I was a couple of years older than her. So, you know, I was in my second year of college. And she was as creative then – through her whole career – she was amazing. She was writing music and as soon as I met her, we just kind of just hooked up.

                              You know, I knew she – everybody in town knew she had something special to give. Because we had a lot of great musicians. We had Greg [unintelligible 0:08:26]. All those people were her contemporaries. It was like a lot of great musicians. But she had something special because it was her own. You know? I mean a lot of guys were trying to sound like Seth [Mendes], Herbie Hancock. You know? Because we had some great pianists. She didn’t do that. She had a tradition thing and she was using with, you know, avant garde – her whole vision was like. She was probably 17, 16 like that

                              And so, it was great because we would just get together. At one point we got together every day and just playing music, playing some of mine, played some of her songs. It was just amazing. So when she – she went to college and I knew she would but I knew that once she got out of here she wasn’t going to come back. Because you already knew that.

                              But we did one album and that was the music that we were [unintelligible 00:09:23] for about two years, three years. And it was called “Open on All Sides”. I think it was her second album for this label called Minor Music. It was excellent because it captured her whole spirit, her big horn section. You know? Mino playing percussion, you know Steve Coleman, you know, and the whole Detroit crew.

 So it was like a kind of a melting of the [unintelligible 00:09:48] crew because that’s where she was kind of landed in New York and then that was true with the Detroit guys. Because we actually played completely different but we were playing her music. So we had lived – we have lived – I know I had – I had lived with her music and all that. So when we got a chance to record it was great. And we did one tour with the entire group like with three horns, percussion, vocals and it was excellent. Excellent, you know. But, of course, she went on to be Geri Allen.

LP:   Incredible career. Incredible career.

Dave McMurray:  Yeah, I mean excellent. And it’s so crazy because we did – a year before she died, she was – and she did a concert with – such a wild – Sandra Wilson, Fred Wesley, me. It was just like an eclectic set of musicians. And she – you know, Ambrose. You know, and it was a different combination of people and she just kind of presented us to do the things that she was knowing you to do through the years.

LP:                        Oh, wow.

Dave McMurray:  And I had not seen her in a couple years. So it was just like a great thing. You know, we had such a fun time. And I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know she was sick or anything, you know. But it was just a great time. We walked away – it was like November and by the time in February somebody called me and told me they didn’t want anybody to know but this is what’s happening. But I didn’t think – you know, you never think somebody’s really going to pass, you know. But yeah, incredible talent.

LP:                        Did I read it correctly in your biography that you weren’t necessarily intending to go into music or did you finish college just as a backup to music. Like how were you thinking about career early on in your life?

Dave McMurray:  Well early on I knew I was going to be in the arts of some time because you know, I paint, you know, I write and stuff. So I knew I was going to be something. But you know, when I went to college I was going – my original thing was to go into music. But when I got there, I was like well you have to – you know, you’re a horn player. You have to play in marching band. I’m like I’m not playing in marching band. It just wasn’t my thing because when I got to college, I got around all these great musicians that were different. It was a great spot.

                              So I just stayed in music. So my first year I was getting all my courses and it got to be a thing where I’m in the music department and the band director knows I’m not in the band. He pulled me aside and said you know you’re not gonna get out of this without coming through me. You know? You have to come through me.

                              And I thought you’re right. I’m going to change my major. And I changed it to music therapy. And so, I did – I was going into that and then my last year of college they said we’re stopping the program. You have to go to Michigan State to finish the program. And I’m like what? No. So I changed my degree to psychology and urban studies. But I knew I was gonna be a musician, you know, at that point.

LP:                        Yeah, yeah. Did it—

Dave McMurray:  You know, so I got – but I did a lot of – you know, I was a teacher for a while. And then I became a mental health therapist. I did that for a couple years and then I just finally said let me see if I can make it as a musician and just go all the way. And hey, never looked back, you know.

LP:                        Yeah. You know, you said something a minute ago I wanted to ask you about which was – and I think I read it somewhere else, a quote from you – what is about the Detroit musicians? You said we played differently than the New York guys. What’s the Detroit crew bring to a sound that’s different from another city?

Dave McMurray:  Well I mean the one thing I see – one of the qualities I see is where we place the music. Like Detroit was a place where people – you know, the south when black migrated up north, they came to Detroit for, you know, the auto industry. Because they can go come and get a job and so a lot of migration came here. But they came with the down south kind of – the blues essentially.

                              You know, I mean the blues were – the musicians around here – not blues per se but where they placed their sound on the beat. So New Yorkers – when you’re in New York the first thing – it’s a natural thing they really play on the beat. They’re on top of it so it’s like really [unintelligible 00:14:56]. They’re just on it. Detroit musicians tend to – it’s like behind the beat a little bit. It’s a little more bashier. It’s more – so you get James Carter. You get Joe Henderson, you know, people like Kenny Garrett. You know, they got this certain personality – J.D. Allen. He has it, too. I mean a lot of musicians and you – you know, it’s a Detroit thing for sure. For sure.

                              And that’s kind of – and I kind of attribute it to the blues but not the blues per se like the blues notes. Not that. But just the sound of trying to get that real human sound. You know? And that’s kind of the difference, you know? And some of the musicians – when you go to New York you kind of adapt your way of playing. Like I found my way. When I would go there it would change my playing a little bit because I go wow, OK, I’m here where people are so I want to bring what I have but I’ve got to get that. You know? Get that kind of element. It’s a natural thing. You just start doing it. That’s what I attribute to the Detroit sound.

LP:                        Yeah. So you could imagine a band leader wanting that sound. You could imagine a band leader ordering up that sound saying I need a Detroit player.

Dave McMurray:  Yeah, that’s like when you – Lateef started playing with Cannonball Adderley, it was that kind of thing. He met Yusef and then he – it was something totally different than what he was doing out west. Because Yusef had that real typical Detroit sound. It was like brassy and boozy and big sound. Even though he can play be-bop and all of that, but it had that flair. And when Cannonball heard it, next thing you know he joined the band. You know? Yeah, definitely. And it kind of goes across – Elmer Jones. I mean they have a certain drive, you know. And they got it now. Like Kareem Riggins he's a drummer that’s of a youth age out of Detroit but he has that same kind of thing, you know. And that’s – you know, it’s indescribable but that’s the Detroit sound. That’s what I call it.

LP:                        Yeah, yeah. Did you get to play with any of the old timers? Did you play with any of the Jones Brothers or you know, Yusef, or any of those cats?

Dave McMurray:  Never. Never. I never got close to Yusef at all. And I was – and he had – I mean I met him but you know, I was so young. He was playing in a real small venue and I’m like – I mean it was amazing. But no, I didn’t – I missed all those guys. But the weird part is I would be – I’d just feel like I was right on the outside and if I probably would have moved – that’s one thing I would have probably got. If I would have moved out of Detroit, I would have probably got closer to those musicians because that’s what happens, you know. And all my friends who did move, they did.

LP:                        Well it’s super interesting to look at – it’s crazy to look at the list of musicians from Detroit and see how many of them played whether they went through the Coltrane bands or Miles’ bands. And then I kind of look at the way your career has gone and you played with a lot of epic people as well. There’s no shortage of amazing records that you play on. It’s really – I think that – I had no idea. When I actually went through and looked at all the records, it’s like man, this guy played with everybody. Everybody, it’s incredible. It’s really incredible.

Dave McMurray:  It was so funny. A lot of them were attributed to Don – at certain points Don [Willis] kind of helped out with a lot of that because he was producing people and I would go out west a lot. So I would be – you know, that’s a whole different scene than New York. But it was good. It was good. So I found myself going out there to work and then come right back home before I spent the money. [Laughs]

LP:                        Nice. How’d you meet Don? Did you grow up with Don or did you meet him in the scene? How did that come together?

Dave McMurray:  No, I kind of met him in the scene. You know, at that time I had my own band that I was working with and then I was working with a group called Real Galaxy. And, you know, I played with Geri. And Don was working in the studio that I knew about but it was like a focal point studio.

                              So I heard – you know, he called my bass player. He called him for a session. And he didn’t know –we didn’t know who Don Willis was. So when he did the session afterwards he said, damn, punk rock session. That’s what he called it. I said what? What are you talking about? He said it was new age. It was different. So I was like oh, OK, and the next thing I know he called me for the session.

                              So when I went to the session, he had a whole point of view. He was like – and then he would say – I mean he was like don’t play regular. You know, like play like you play with [unintelligible 00:17:25], Ornette Coleman, play you know, play you. Like that. But I didn’t hear the song anyway. So he played a groove and I’d just be going crazy having a good time playing. And I played a lot of the songs but I didn’t hear the whole song. And when I first heard the first album, I never had heard – I didn’t know it was a song and I didn’t know anything. It was amazing. [Laughs] When he finally finished it and after that me and him became tight. I started playing in all of his groups and all that stuff. You know?

                              But it was a good time because anybody who comes to you and says OK, I want this to sound like if Elva Jones and Joe Henderson was playing with you know, Sid Vicious or, you know, something crazy I want it to be a combination of this and this. And I was looking at him like what? That’s crazy. But I like it.

LP:                        [Laughs]

Dave McMurray:  I’m the guy, you know, for that.

LP:                        It’s almost like a film director. He sounds like a film director giving that kind of direction to a musician. It’s interesting.

Dave McMurray:  Yeah, it was really cool and really different. And then he happened to be a great bass player, too, because he played – I mean and he was one of those who went – he played jazz and before that he was in all the punk groups being the lead guy and just being a while personality. So it was two completely different things over here playing standards – you standards – and then over here into all these – so his music, you know is vast. And mine is like – I’m like that, too. I just like every type of music. That’s why, you know, that’s been a good relationship.

LP:                        Yeah, yeah. So prior to this record and Don introducing you to [Weir] what was your knowledge of the Grateful Dead?

Dave McMurray:  [Unintelligible 00:22:39] the hits and the history of them. You know because I would hear – besides hearing the hit I’d rather hear a song because they were on the radio all the time. It would always be something but I wouldn’t even know it was them. I mean they catalog is tremendous. But then I would hear that Ornette Coleman play. And I’m like Ornette Coleman. Wow. And then I heard David Murray play. You know, and I was like wow, that’s, you know, that’s really different for a rock group. Instead of like a Clarence Clemons or something. Instead of going that way, they would go to the left side.

                              And then when I heard [Branford] I was like – I mean and his was the most easily – when I started hearing him and what he did it’s like oh, he’s being himself. I mean he can – he’s fitting himself in there. But that’s all I would know, you know. But you know, I would just research that. But I would just go I get to get into this because I can’t figure out how Ornette and David Murray fits into this. How do they fit into this [unintelligible 00:23:45]? So that’s why I knew that had to have something to it.

                              And the whole – San Francisco has a sound to me. And I like that sound because it was a sound that was kind of pre-kind of – you know, he had people you know, like Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, you know, you had this thing where they would stretch out and that’s what I would always attribute that to San Francisco sound. It might have been the whole west coast but I would attribute that to that area – Oakland. It seemed like a lot of music came out of there and it had that stretched quality. And that’s what I liked about it which is why I liked the Dead.

LP:                        Yeah, yeah. So you didn’t come across them in the 70s? You didn’t see them at the time?

Dave McMurray:  Never saw them but I knew some people that would make the trek and you know, that would go to their gigs. And I just didn’t understand it. I was just like how? How do you do that? Why do you do that? And that’s intriguing. But I never had the answer to it because I just knew it was something.

And it’s odd now when I would hear things and see things like them with the cassette tape thing, they would encourage it. I remember when cassettes came in and they were like oh, no, don’t record the show. Because I would be one of those who would always have my cassette machine in my pocket. They would find it and I’d tape Miles Davis, you know, but I’m not trying to sell it. I’m just trying to listen to it for myself.

                              So when I heard that they embraced it, I liked that. I was like that’s what – I like that. They’re doing it. And that ended up being a great thing. You know? That’s kin of one of their things, you know?

LP:                        Yeah. So did you listen to the other horn players – the recordings – who played with him? Did you listen to David Murray and Branford and – or did you listen to those?

Dave McMurray:  I listened to Branford. Branford. I listened to a lot of Branford now, but I didn’t – I’ve went to it now. I’ve went to David Murray but I’m glad I didn’t hear his record before I did it because I didn’t listen to what he did. But I knew he was playing but I couldn’t find what concerts those were. Now? I talked to this [unintelligible 00:26:21] last week and they gave me – they actually had it – had the concerts that had Ornette on them. So I’m gonna listen to them because I’m curious to see what it is. You know?

LP:                        Yeah, yeah.

Dave McMurray:  I can imagine. But I love Branford. And I see how Branford did it because his was the most easily visible. You know?

LP:                        Oh, and it was such a – it fit – you said it earlier. He fit – it was just so lyrical his playing with them and it seemed like – I mean I just listened to it again recently, the first time he played with them. And it’s shocking how he just fell right in and you could actually hear him listening. That’s the thing. I could hear him listening. I could hear his playing get more intricate and interwoven as it went on because he was listening to what was going on.

Dave McMurray:  Right. Right, right. Because you had to learn – you had to get that space – the right space, you know. And that’s one of the first things I saw when I sat in with the Wolf Brothers. You know, I was – you know, when he’s describing it he’s giving me – saying OK, check it out, listen to it. We might do this song we might do this song. You know, he didn’t know what songs they would be.

                              So I went and listened to, you know, a couple of them and I listened to Branford and, you know, it’s so funny when I was listening to it, I just – it was just like OK, I’m nervous because I wouldn’t know where the verse was and where the chorus was gonna come because it wasn’t normal. Because it’s like live shows.

                              So it might be short before they get [unintelligible 00:28:01] and I was like oh, no, this is going to be – you know, like this is gonna be difficult you know, but it’s gonna be fun.

Well one day I was just driving with the music, just driving and not really – you know, just driving. And then it hit me. It just hit me like this is it. This is – they do what they want. They’re doing what they want to do. They go where they area. They go to the verse when they want. Then after the first there might be a guitar solo, might be short, might be long. Might be [unintelligible 00:28:33]. Then I knew [unintelligible 00:28:36]. I was just like – this is like Weather Report. This is like Miles Davis to me. You know, because I like groups like [Soft Machine] and all those kind of groups like that. I used to listen to that. Because they were – like [unintelligible 00:28:52]. They were long records – I mean instrumental but they were long.

But it just hit me and when I played them, it was a – it’s magical. You know, this is when I played the Wolf Brothers. It’s space but you don’t – you know, they’re not killing it with a solo like that. It’s like conversation. It’s like listening. You know? And that’s why Branford was like. He’s listening and each time I can – I listen to a lot of him now. And I know he was finding his space more and more. You know? He would get it like yeah, I know what this is. You know?

                              But yeah, it’s been an adventure already and I’m just – I look at it I’m getting ready to jump – we’re going to do some – you know, start working them with it. So I’m excited about it. Just get in front of the audience and just see. You know?

LP:                        That’s what I wanted to ask you. Are you going to play those songs live? Is it going to be – you’re going to tour the record basically?

Dave McMurray:  Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. I am. I’ve been throwing them in for the last few months. I mean like – “Dark Star” was the first one I recorded and it’s been going over great no matter what the audience is. You know if they know what it is, they know immediately which is kind of why I picked some of the songs because as soon as you hear the intro, you know that’s “Dark Star” if you’re a fan. You know? And if you’re not, you’re still intrigued because it holds you. But it would work. When I did it in jazz clubs, you know, it worked. And it’s like that’s the mark of their songs. That’s what the magic is of those songs really. You know?

LP:                        Yeah. There was a—

Dave McMurray:  So yeah, definitely. I’m going to—

LP:                        I think I cut you off.

Dave McMurray:  Oh, say it again. It cut out for a second.

LP:                        Well I was—

Dave McMurray:  I was—

LP:                        We’re stuck in a delay. [Laughs] Hold on, one sec. Let me see if I turn off my video if it addresses some of the delay that’s starting to come up here. Do you hear me any better now? Did that help at all? I think we’re a little bit delayed.

Dave McMurray:  Then again, I think it did. But I still – I can hear you. You hear me clear though, right?

LP:                        Yeah, I lost you for a minute there. Yeah.

Dave McMurray:  Oh, OK.

LP:                        All right, we’re back. Sorry about that. We’ll edit out. We’ll keep it smooth. It’s the magic of post-production.

Dave McMurray:  OK, cool, cool.

LP:                        Yeah, the thing I wanted to ask you about – you started to address it but – when I was listening to the record, that breakdown in “Dark Star” man, you guys, it made me – the first thing I thought was man, I’ve got to see this live. [Laughs]

Dave McMurray:  Oh, and it’s such a fun song because people – I look at people and they’re like hypnotized there. You know, and it’s the music. You know, I mean because when we recorded that in the studio, we did the first – you know, just in the rehearsal, we rehearsed the song and I was trying to keep it straight like the single was. And then go from there.

                              And so, we’d rehearse it and got it tight and where we wanted and I said tomorrow we’re going into the studio and then I said we’re going to stop and we’re going to count it off and then we’re gonna go. And they said, go where? What are we gonna do? I’m like I don’t even want to rehearse it, I just want to play it.

                              So we got in the studio. We did it, you know, we finally got the good take and we got it and everybody looked at each other like wow, that was good. And then I said count it off. They counted it off and then they started playing. And I said hold it, hold it, hold it. I said you know, make it minor. And then they looked at me like I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I said so count it off again. We did it, counted it off and they played it just like that. They played the parts – it went all the way to the end and I was like that was magical right there. I liked it. It was great. And that set the tone – that was the first song we recorded. That kind of set the tone for it, you know.

LP:                        Yeah. How did you put together the tracks?

Dave McMurray:  Well I would kind of go song after song. I’d go – after I’d do one I’d go OK, let me find one that’s fast. OK, let me find one that’s this. You know, let me just – and so I just started listening to all their music. I go from one album – and then when I’d hear a song, I like I’d mark it. And you know, then you know, just mark it. Because there’s a lot I didn’t get to. I couple of them I – like I cut “China Cat Sunflower” and I’m gonna definitely play it live. But then I was trying it with a trio first. Like I tried these songs with just three pieces first and I was like nah, let me go to it – I’m gonna do it again.

                              And so, we went in with the group – that group – added the two pieces and it just worked out. So each piece I’d go – after I do that I go, OK, now I need one like this. Find a song like that. Now I need one with a melody like – you know, upfront. OK, now I need a dark song. You know? And I just kind of went through until it, you know, I was there. You know, until I was satisfied with the 10 I picked.

LP:                        Yeah, yeah. How about Bettye LaVette? How did that come about? I mean that’s like – first of all just to tell the listeners so “Loser” is the first single that you guys put out. You put out a beautiful video and a vocal performance from Bettye LaVette for the ages man, for the ages.

Dave McMurray:  She is incredible. She’s from Detroit. But I didn’t know her but we know so many people in common. You know, she knows every musician around here because she uses only – you know, Detroit musicians a lot. But when we first – when I knew I was going to have a vocal song on the record I was like well I’m gonna have my guys from [unintelligible 00:34:52]. You know, because he’s got the character.

                              And so, it ended up, untimely he passed last year. So at that point, I was like hmm, I don’t know what I’m gonna do as far as male vocalist. And it’s like what about a female? And it’s like yeah, that would be different. And then I just was talking about it with my manager and then we went back and she said, “What about Bettye LaVette?” I said, “Wow. That could be great.” And I was like OK, yeah.

                              So I kind of mulled it around and they we’re all listening to music. And then she had a call in where she was talking Don Willis. And then she kind of mentioned it like oh, the story. And then he said, you know, “Well about Bettye LeVette?” And then that was the magic right there. She was like oh, OK you mentioned it. We all mentioned it. Let’s try to make it happen. Didn’t know how it was going to happen.

But we just went about – and it worked. You know, she said she would do it and it was funny with the story because we picked the song and then she would say, “What do I know about this?” [Laughs] What do I know about playing – but once, you know, we explained it to her and got her into the story, she said, “Oh, yeah. I’m kind of like Calamity Jane. Yeah.”

                              And when she did the vocals – you know, when I heard it, my mouth fell open. You know, how she interpreted the lyrics was great.

LP:                        Yeah, yeah. She really got inside the melody on it. It’s great.

Dave McMurray:  Yeah, yeah. She really did. She was really, really feeling it. But when I finally – you know we were in person, you know, we clicked already on the phone but, you know, when we finally got there, you know, on the set, we just clicked immediately. That’s why it’s like great just because she’s a real person. I’ll put it that way. I don’t know if you met her but yeah, she’s like she sounds.

LP:                        She’s one of the last shows I saw before COVID actually. I saw her at a little sort of supper club here with just her and pianist and it was—

Dave McMurray:  Oh, that’s cool.

LP:                        Crushed it. Absolutely amazing, absolutely amazing.

Dave McMurray:  Yes, yes, she’s really incredible.

LP:                        Yeah, yeah. And how about working with Bobby? What was it like to work with one of the sources of all this?

Dave McMurray:  Yeah, well he’s helped me and he’s such a great guy. He is [sound drops out 00:37:28]. You know, we had some guest musicians and we did one of his songs – “In Days Gone By.” And when I first – you know, when was looking for a recording of it I couldn’t find a recording but I had what he had given me and the music. And just looking at the music, we were like wow, this is a hard song. How are we going to do this? You know, because the chart looked like three, four bars and it was just an odd song. I was like wow, this is going to be like a wild sone when we do it.

                              We did the first rehearsal and the rehearsal was amazing. It was just like the first thing. We were just trying it, just trying to find our way through it. It was great. And I was like when we do this gig, I can feel like this might be amazing right here. Just because of the way it was set up. And when we did it the next day – it was like an afternoon. It was daylight. People were hypnotized – you know, by the song because it was just like – it was long, long, real long for them. I don’t know if you know that song but it’s like real long. But it went incredible.

                              But he was such a great guy. I mean he was just like different. I expected him to be one way and he’s not. I mean, you know, he was friendly, kind of –what’s the word – continental. [Laughs]

LP:                        [Laughs]

Dave McMurray:  In a way. You know what I mean, he’s like regular. Regular but you know, good. It’s like I like people – you know, when you meet somebody, you want somebody to be, you know, not a jerk. [Laughs] You know, you want them to be like that. Be themselves – have a character but be themselves. And he was definitely that. He was just like what I wanted him to be, you know.

LP:                        It’s interesting how he’s the keeper of that song.

Dave McMurray:  He is, he is. Because they’ve been ready to go out for months with Dead and company. I was like wow, that’s a real tour.

LP:                        It’s a real tour, year.

Dave McMurray:  But we’re going to do some – my first gigs are on the 21st and the 22nd out in Colorado Springs. And then we go to Colorado and then we just gonna try to make the west – you know, make some moves out there.

LP:                        Yeah, yeah.

Dave McMurray:  And we’re gonna try to do some after shows with Dead and company, too, so we’ll see.

LP:                        So you’ll start to see some different faces in the crowd.

Dave McMurray:  That’s what I’m looking for. That’s what I’m looking – you know, the major difference is when you’re playing in a jazz club people are sitting down. This is a whole different ballgame so I’m anxious about that with people that are standing up, being energetic with your music. So I’m kind of looking forward to that. You know? So I’m expecting a definite an expanded audience or a different audiences.

LP:                        Yeah, yeah. Are we gonna get you up here to Seattle?

Dave McMurray:  [Sound drops out 00:40:46].

LP:                        I lost you there.

Dave McMurray:  You there?

LP:                        Yep. Here we are.

Dave McMurray:  OK, I said yes, yes, we are coming there. You would probably know the venues I should play in, right?

LP:                        For sure.

Dave McMurray:  Yeah, because I’d love to. We’re going to try to hit – I’m ready to work. The band is excited. We’re like learning the music and, of course, other music that they have. It’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be fun.

LP:                        That’s great. That’s great Yeah, we’ve got to get you up here. I’m looking forward to seeing the show myself. Well listen, we’re going to edit around any of the technical glitches we had and I’m sorry about that.

Dave McMurray:  Oh, cool. Cool.

LP:                        We’ll make you look as good as you are. [Laughs]

Dave McMurray:  I don’t know about that one. That’ll be easy to do.

LP:                        I’ve got to tell you one other thing, though. Maybe you’ll get a laugh our of this. When I watched the video for “Loser” and then I knew I was gonna be talking to you, I was like man, that guy is a bad son of a gun, man. I was kind of afraid. [Laughs]

Dave McMurray:  Oh, no. That’s funny. [Laughs]

LP:                        [Laughs] I was like man, he’s a tough mug, man.

Dave McMurray:  It’s like everybody’s looking through me. No, as you see I’m a smiley guy.

LP:                        [Laughs] Like oh man, I’ve got to watch myself with this guy.

Dave McMurray:  Oh, no. I’m one of them. I like to have fun. You know, even on the gig, I like to have fun. Even if I’m not talking a lot, I like to have fun and I think I put that spirit out there.

LP:                        For sure, for sure.

Dave McMurray:  So yeah, I’m definitely looking forward to live.

LP:                        Well listen thank you for sharing the music. I think I love your take on it. I think people are gonna really dig it. Thank you for sharing your energy.

Dave McMurray:  Oh, good, thank you.

LP:                        I’m glad to hear you made it through COVID in one piece and I can’t wait to see you.

Dave McMurray:  Oh yeah. Yeah, because I know a few friends that didn’t. So this is a good time. With it opening up I’m feeling excited. I did – I gigged this weekend. And it was so good. It wasn’t even a money thing. I just felt great just playing with people. You know?

LP:                        How was it? Did it go all right?

Dave McMurray:  It went excellent. It sold out as many people as they could get in there but it went great. Of course, I threw four songs in there and they went over great.

LP:                        Oh, that’s great to hear.

Dave McMurray:  And I wasn’t really kind of – you know, it’s not available yet so I wouldn’t try to force it down their throats or some thing but it was fun. You know, just getting to go on. So we have a – our release party is on the 18th of July so after that we’re off and running.

LP:                        That’s great. Well break a leg with that. We’re gonna run this episode probably the week the record comes out so it’s all happening at the same time.

Dave McMurray:  Great. Oh, I’ll be listening. I can’t wait to hear it. And thank you, too, man. I appreciate it.

LP:                        Yeah, man, of course. And, Dave, be well, stay safe and enjoy playing the music.

Dave McMurray:  OK, thanks. I will see you. We will meet in person.

LP:                        I’d love that. All right. Peace.

Dave McMurray:  OK, peace.

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Dave McMurray


Dave McMurray has taken a long, strange trip to arrive at his most recent releases for Blue Note Records. On Grateful Deadication, the saxophonist bridges his gritty, soulful Detroit sound with the flower-empowered songs of San Francisco icons the Grateful Dead with a tribute 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.”