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.