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Dave McMurray: Blowing on the Edge of Grate-ness

Courtesy Paul Moore

Lawrence Peryer BY

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The Detroit thing is in the blues notes. But not just that. It’s in the trying to get that real human sound. That’s the difference in Detroit.
—Dave McMurray
Saxophonist Dave McMurray's discography is reflective of the musical melting pot of his hometown Detroit. Dave came up playing with everyone from bluesman Albert King, pianist Geri Allen, even Kid Rock. He is most known for his decades-long association with eclectic producer, and Blue Note label President, Don Was.

Through Was, who is a band mate of Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir in their group Wolf Bros, Dave became familiar with the music of the San Francisco icons. He first performed the music by joining Wolf Bros on stage and now has a full-length release of Grateful Dead covers out. That album, Grateful Deadication (Blue Note, 2021), finds the master musician applying his rough-and-tumble Detroit sound to an exploration of the beloved Grateful Dead song book.

Grateful Deadication highlights Dave McMurray backed by a band consisting of bassist Ibrahim Jones , drummer Jeff Canady, guitarist Wayne Gerard, keyboardist Maurice O’Neal, pianist Luis Resto and percussionist Larry Fratangelo. Guests include Bob Weir, alongside Bettye LaVette and Weir's Wolf Bros bandmates Don Was, Jay Lane, Jeff Chimenti, and Greg Leisz.

Dave McMurray is a fierce player with a joyous spirit, not unlike the city that spawned him.

All About Jazz: I am really eager to talk to you about the current project but I was hoping maybe we could talk a little bit about Detroit.

Dave McMurray: For sure. I'm born and raised in Detroit. I have been here forever.

AAJ: And that is where you are still based?

DM: I'm still here. At a certain point I didn't have a reason to leave because I traveled a lot and this was my home. I just stayed in Detroit and I made it my base. I'm glad I did, actually. I watched it go up, down and back up again.

AAJ: And it's back, yes? Detroit is back.

DM: Yeah, and it's doing pretty good. The pandemic has everything down but it's definitely on the way up. Over the last couple of years it's been great. There's lots of new things. The music is flourishing, lots of young musicians. It's been good. Everything is just opening now— again. I think in two days it's going to open completely. Hopefully, it can catch up quickly after this.

AAJ: Maybe the pandemic leveled the playing field for everybody.

DM: It did in a lot of ways, really. But the music has been good. A lot of music's been going on. It seems like every musician I know is recording.

AAJ: That's amazing. When you were coming up, who were your guys? What were you listening to? What were you going to see? Detroit was always a melting pot for music.

DM: It was. When I first was able to go to concerts it would be everybody from Parliament Funkadelic to Miles Davis, Weather Report...We had a lot of small venues that would bring in Ornette Coleman, you know, Elvin Jones. And the places probably held 100 people so I would be this close to them. You know? I would get in by setting up chairs. I got a chance to see some great concerts. Anything that was just kind of eclectic— that was my music—Sly and the Family Stone. Energetic music. I always liked that.

Detroit was cool because it had a jazz scene that was creative and it had a rock scene that was also creative. And then in the '80s we got the techno thing going on. It was just great for music.

AAJ: When you were a kid coming up, were any of those old cats still around? Like, were the Jones Brothers around? Yusef Lateef?

DM: 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. It was a new crop of musicians that were around by then. We had our mentors, like Marcus Belgrave. He played with Ray Charles but he was like a mentor to everyone. There was a whole scene around here for that. By the time I was 18, I was sitting in, playing all over town. It was music everywhere at that time. It was just open. That was a good creative point.

It's getting kind of like that now. It's a good crop of younger creative musicians, and they're taking on the jazz tradition and more. And that's a good thing. That keeps the music growing.

AAJ: That's exciting. Could you tell me a little bit about working with Geri Allen?

DM: Geri Allen, she's one of my favorites. When I met Geri, she was still in high school and I was a couple of years older than her. I was in my second year of college. She was as creative then as 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.

Everybody in town knew she had something special to give. She had something special that was her own.

At one point we got together every day and just played music, playing some of mine, playing some of her songs. It was just amazing. When she went to college I knew that once she got out of here she wasn't going to come back. We already knew that.

We did one album called Open on All Sides (1986). 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 and the whole Detroit crew. 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! But, of course, she went on to be Geri Allen.

AAJ: Incredible career.

DM: Yeah, excellent. And it's so crazy because a year before she died, she did a concert with Cassandra Wilson, Fred Wesley, me...It was just an eclectic set of musicians. It was a different combination of people and she just directed us to do the things that she knew we each did through the years. And I had not seen her in a couple years, so it was just a great thing. We had such a fun time. I didn't know she was sick or anything. But it was just a great time. We walked away—it was like November and by the time February came somebody called me and told me they didn't want anybody to know but this is what's happening with her. I didn't think—you know, you never think somebody's really going to pass, you know. But yeah, incredible talent.

AAJ: How were you thinking about the notion of a career early on in your life?

DM: Early on I knew I was going to be in the arts of some sort because I paint, I write, I make music. I knew it was going to be something. When I went to college my original thing was to go into music. When I got there, as a horn player, I had to play in marching band. I'm like, "I am not playing in a marching band!" It just was not my thing. When I got to college, I got around all these great musicians that were different. It was a great spot.

In my first year I was getting all my courses set and it got to be a thing where I'm in the music department and the band director knows I'm not in his marching band. He pulled me aside and said, "You know, you are not gonna get out of this without coming through me."

I knew he was right, so I'm going to change my major. I changed it to music therapy but in my last year of college they said they were stopping that program! I had to go to Michigan State to finish the program. So I changed my degree to psychology and urban studies. But I knew I was gonna be a musician at that point.

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?

AAJ: What is about the Detroit musicians? What's the Detroit crew bring to a sound that's different from another city?

DM: When black migrated up north, they came to Detroit for the auto industry. Because they can get a job so easily, a lot of migration came here. But they came with the down south kind of feel—the blues, essentially.

It was not the blues, per se, but where the musicians placed their sound on the beat. When you're in New York, it's a natural thing to really play on the beat. They're on top of it. They're just on it. Detroit musicians -it's like behind the beat a little bit. So you get a James Carter. You get a Joe Henderson. A Kenny Garrett. You know, they've got this certain personality—it's a Detroit thing for sure. For sure.

The Detroit thing is in the blues notes. But not just that. It's in the trying to get that real human sound. That's the difference in Detroit. When you go to New York you adapt your way of playing. When I would go there it would change my playing a little bit. You just start doing it.

AAJ: One could imagine a band leader wanting that sound. A band leader ordering up that sound saying, "I need a Detroit player!"

DM: Yeah, that's like when Lateef started playing with Cannonball Adderley, it was that kind of thing. He met Yusef and then it was something totally different than what he was doing out West. Because Yusef had that real typical Detroit sound. It was like a brassy and bluesy and big sound. Even though he can play be-bop and all of that, but it had that flair. Elvin Jones. A certain drive. It is indescribable but that's the Detroit sound. That's what I call it.

AAJ: Did you get to play with any of the old timers?

DM: Never. Never. I never got close to Yusef at all. I met him but I was so young. He was playing in a real small venue and it was amazing. But no, I missed all those guys. If I would have moved out of Detroit, I would have probably got closer to those musicians because that's what happens. And all my friends who did move, they did.

AAJ: It's crazy to look at the list of musicians from Detroit and see how many of them went through the John 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. When I went through and looked at all the records, I think, "Man, this guy played with everybody. Everybody."

DM: It was so funny. A lot of them were attributed to Don Was. Don helped me out with a lot of that because he was producing people and I would go out West a lot and play his sessions. I found myself going out there to work and then come right back home before I spent the money. [laughs]

AAJ: How did you meet Don? Did you grow up with Don or did you meet him in the scene?

DM: No, I kind of met him in the scene. I had my own band that I was working with and I was also working with a group called Real Galaxy. And I played with Geri. Don was working in a studio that I knew about but it was like the focal point studio.

We didn't know who Don Was was but he called my bassist for a session. 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. It was different. The next thing I know he called me for a session.

When I went to the session, he had a whole point of view. He would say, "Don't play regular." He played a groove and I'd just be going crazy having a good time playing. I played on a lot of the songs but I didn't hear the whole song, just where I had to play. When I first heard it all, I didn't know it was a song or anything. It was amazing. [laughs] After that me and him became tight. I started playing in all of his groups.

It was a good time because anybody who comes to you and says, "I want this to sound like if Elvin Jones and Joe Henderson was playing with Sid Vicious or something crazy. I want it to be a combination of this and this." I was looking at him like, "What? That's crazy. But I like it."

I'm the guy for that.

AAJ: He sounds like a film director giving that kind of direction to a musician.

DM: It was really cool and really different. And he happened to be a great bassist, too. He played jazz and before that he was in all the punk groups. His music is vast. I'm like that, too. I just like every type of music. That's why it's been a good relationship.

AAJ: Prior to this record and Don introducing you to Bob Weir, what was your knowledge of the Grateful Dead?

DM: Not much. The hits and a little of the history of them. I would 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 the catalog is tremendous. But then I would hear that Ornette Coleman played with them. And I'm like, "Ornette Coleman, Wow." And then I heard David Murray played with them. That's different for a rock group. Instead of like a Clarence Clemons, instead of going that way, they would go to the left side.

When I heard Branford Marsalis playing with them and he's being himself, I mean, he's fitting himself in there. I can't figure out how Ornette and David Murray fits into this. How do they fit into this music? Their involvement led me to know there had to be something to it all.

San Francisco has a sound to me. I like that sound because it had people 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 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.

AAJ: You didn't come across them in the '70s? You didn't see them at the time?

DM: Never saw them but I knew some people that would make the trek and would go to their gigs. I just didn't understand it. I was just like, "How do you do that? Why do you do that?" It was intriguing, but I never had the answer to it. I just knew it was a thing.

I would hear things and see things like them with the cassette tape thing, they would encourage recording of the shows. I remember when cassettes came in and people were like, "Oh, no, don't record the show." I would be one of those who would always have my cassette machine in my pocket. 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.

When I first heard that they embraced it, I liked that. That ended up being a great thing.

AAJ: Did you listen to the other horn players—the recordings—who played with them? Did you listen to David Murray and Branford?

DM: I listened to Branford. I love Branford. I see how Branford did it because his was the most easily visible.

AAJ: It was such a fit—you said it earlier. He fit—it was just so lyrical, his playing with them. 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.

DM: Right. Right, right. 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 Bros. When Don is describing it, saying, "OK, check it out, listen to it. We might do this song, we might do that song." He didn't know what songs they would be!

I went and listened to a couple of the shows, and I listened to Branford with the Dead and, you know, it's so funny when I was listening to it, I'm nervous because I wouldn't know where the verse was and where the chorus was gonna come because it wasn't normal.

I'm like, "This is gonna be difficult, but it's gonna be fun!"

One day I was driving with the music and it hit me. It just hit me— they do what they want. They're doing what they want to do. They go to any 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. This is like Weather Report. This is like Miles Davis to me.

When I played with them, it was magical. This is when I played with Wolf Bros. 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 great with the Dead. He's listening and he was finding his space more and more.

It's been an adventure already and I'm getting ready to get in front of the audience and just see.

AAJ: You are going to play the songs live? You're going to tour the Dead cover record?

DM: 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. If they know what it is, they know immediately. As soon as you hear the intro, you know that's "Dark Star" if you're a fan. If you're not, you're still intrigued because it holds you. When I did it in jazz clubs, it worked. That's the mark of their songs. That's what the magic is of those songs really.

AAJ: On your record, that breakdown in "Dark Star..."the first thing I thought was, "Man, I've got to see this live." [laughs]

DM: Oh, and it's such a fun song because I look out at people and they're like hypnotized there. When we recorded that in the studio, we rehearsed the song and I was trying to keep it straight like their single was. And then go from there.

We'd rehearse it and got it tight where we wanted it and I said, "Tomorrow we're going into the studio, play it, then we're going to stop and we're going to count it off and then we're gonna go." The band said, "Go where? What are we gonna do?" I said, "I don't even want to rehearse it, I just want to play it."

We got in the studio, we got the good take and everybody looked at each other like, "Wow, that was good." Then we counted off and started playing. And I said, "Hold it, hold it, hold it. Make it minor." We counted it off again and they played what's on my record. They played it all the way to the end and it was magical. It was great. And that set the tone—that was the first song we recorded. That kind of set the tone for it all.

AAJ: How did you put together the tracks?

DM: One song at a time. 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. There's a lot I didn't get to. I cut "China Cat Sunflower" and I'm gonna definitely play it live but I was trying it with a trio first. I tried these songs with just three pieces first and I did them again.

We went in with a bigger group, added the two additional pieces and it worked out.

AAJ: How about Bettye LaVette? How did that come about?

DM: She is incredible. She's from Detroit. But I didn't know her but we know so many people in common. She knows every musician around here because she uses Detroit musicians a lot. I was talking with my manager, and she said, "What about Bettye LaVette?" I said, "Wow. That could be great. Let's try to make it happen." I didn't know how it was going to happen.

Bettye said she would do it and we picked the song ("Loser") and she would say, "What do I know about this? What do I know about these lyrics?" We explained the song's story to her and got her into the story, and she said, "Oh, yeah. I'm kind of like Calamity Jane. Yeah."

When she did those vocals —when I heard it, my mouth fell open. How she interpreted the lyrics was great.

AAJ: She really got inside the melody on it. It's great.

DM: Yeah, yeah. She really did. She was really, really feeling it. I don't know if you met her but she's like she sounds.

AAJ: She's one of the last shows I saw before COVID, actually. I saw her in a small room in Seattle. Just her and a pianist.

DM: Oh, that's cool.

AAJ: She crushed it. Absolutely amazing, absolutely amazing.

DM: Yes, yes, she's really incredible.

AAJ: How about working with Bob Weir? What was it like to work with one of the sources of all this?

DM: He's such a great guy. You know, we had some guest musicians, and we were working up one of his songs to play with Wolf Bros, we were looking for a recording of it and couldn't find one. He had given me the music and just looking at the music, we were like, "Wow, this is a hard song. How are we going to do this?!" The chart looked like three, four bars and it was just an odd song.

We did the first rehearsal and it was amazing. We were just trying to find our way through it. It was great. I felt like the gig might be amazing. Just because of the way it was set up. And when we did it the next day—it was afternoon. It was daylight. People were hypnotized. It was incredible.

He is such a great guy. Friendly. Regular. When you meet somebody, you want somebody to be, you know, not a jerk. (laughs] You want them to be themselves—have a character but be themselves. And he was definitely that. He was just like what I wanted him to be

AAJ: It's interesting how he's the keeper of that song book now.

DM: He is, he is. They've been ready to go back out for months in stadiums with Dead & Company. That's a real tour.

My first gigs back out are in Colorado Springs and then we 're just gonna try to make some moves out West -and we're gonna try to do some after shows along the Dead & Company tour, too, so we'll see.

AAJ: You'll start to see some different faces in your crowds.

DM: 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 the music. I'm looking forward to that. I'm expecting an expanded audience or a different audience.

AAJ: I've got to tell you one other thing before I let you go. Maybe you'll get a laugh out of this. When I watched your video for "Loser" and I knew I was gonna be talking to you, I was like, "Man, that guy is a bad son of a gun." I was kind of afraid. You look bad ass in that video. lLaughs]

DM: Oh, no. (laughs] As you see I'm a smiley guy. I like to have fun. Even on this 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.

AAJ: For sure, for sure. I'm glad to hear you made it through COVID in one piece.

DM: Yeah, because I know a few friends that didn't. This is a good time. With it all opening up, I'm feeling excited. 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?

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

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

AAJ: Oh, that's great to hear. Dave, be well, stay safe and enjoy playing the music.

DM: OK, thanks. I will see you in person soon.

AAJ: Count on it. Peace.

DM: Peace.

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