Saxophonist Dave McMurray, Who Plays Bop Stop on Saturday, Talks About His New Album of Grateful Dead Covers

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click to enlarge Sax man David McMurray. - Chris Wilson
Chris Wilson
Sax man David McMurray.
Growing up in Detroit, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Dave McMurray was exposed to a variety of different music, but didn't necessarily think of playing jazz as a possible occupation. When he attended a Motown revue as a kid, however, he knew it was something he wanted to seriously pursue.

“I think it’s the greatest thing [to be from Detroit],” he says in a recent phone interview. Dave McMurray performs at 8 p.m. on Saturday at the Bop Stop. “[Musicians] claim it years later even after they move. Growing up here, there’s all kinds of different music. My father would be playing jazz, and Motown was big. Music was everywhere. At that first concert, I was like, ‘Wow. There were all these groups.’ Of course, in my mind, I could see myself on stage. I said, ‘I’m going to do that one day.’ That’s the Detroit thing. We were always known for all types.”

In the '80s, McMurray would meet producer extraordinaire Don Was, who helped open the door to a number of terrific opportunities. Was enlisted McMurray to play a session on a Was (Not Was) album, and a friendship was born.

“When I went to the studio for a midnight session, he only played me the bass lines and the drums," says McMurray. "He didn’t play me any vocals or really tell me what the song was about. He just said, ‘Don’t feel like you’re restricted.’ We played all night, and it was so cool. Months later, he played it for me, and I was amazed. It was a real song with Sweet Pea [Atkinson] as the singer on top.”

Was, who's worked with acts such as Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones, kept McMurray busy throughout the '80s.

“It was just the best,” he says. “I was playing with people I was listening to on the radio. The coolest was the Stones situation. [Was] said, ‘Come out here. I can’t bring you out, but if you come out here, they’re going to want you to play.’ I said, 'I am coming out Monday.' I sat in the house and here came Keith Richards. He looked around and saw that I had horns. He was like, ‘Do you feel like playing?’ Next thing, I’m in the studio playing. It was the coolest hang. The sessions would start late night, and it would be a party. There would be [singer] Bobby Womack over here and other people over there. I was just hanging. I was like a fly on the wall.”

After opening for Dire Straits with Was (Not Was), McMurray befriended Bob James, who was head of the jazz department at Warner Bros. at the time. James offered to release his solo material, and McMurray took him up on the opportunity.

“I was always recording music, trying to do solo material. I had this concept of where music was going,” says McMurray. “Miles hadn’t done doo-bop yet. I was doing these demos with this avant garde saxophonist. He thought it was the craziest thing. It was like ‘dirty jazz.’ Back then, everybody was playing, and everybody was good. Somehow, he signed me out of that. He said ‘[The label is] going to tell you to do this or that. You should do what you want.’ That was a great situation. I transitioned into that world.”

About four years ago, McMurray met the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and started yet another chapter in his career. At that time, McMurray knew the band’s “hits” but not much else.

“I thought it was an intriguing sound,” says McMurray, who played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in 2018 with Weir.

“We did the festival in San Francisco, and Don Was put together these groups together, and Bob Weir sang a song called ‘Days Between.” I thought it was a crazy song. When we rehearsed it, I didn’t know what we would do with it, but it had a vibe at rehearsal. I thought it might be good. When we did it at the gig, it was hypnotic. People were transfixed. They were right in it. I liked it. I wanted to dive into it a little more.”

When Weir’s Wolf Bros played Detroit, McMurray sat in with the guys and realized he needed to dive into the Dead’s music. He picked a handful of tunes that he loved and covered them for his new album, Grateful Deadication.

“I gravitate to songs that have strong melodies,” says McMurray when asked about what it was like to put a jazz spin on the Dead’s music. “I’m listening to what Jerry [Garcia] is singing. I would dive into his inflections and his melodies and the words. That’s what amazed me. The music was happy but the words aren’t. The words are really dark. I’m playing the vocals [on the saxophone]. I got into it like that. The first one was ‘Dark Star.’ We did that, and it was a surprise to everybody. After that, we knew what kinds of songs we needed. I would listen to all the catalog, and one would jump out because of the great melodies.”

Album opener “Fire on the Mountain” is remarkably dissonant as it commences with a free jazz freakout before settling into a more conventional jazz groove that resembles the original tune.

“It just happened like that,” says McMurray when asked about his take on the track.

McMurray also teams up with the great blues/R&B singer Bettye LaVette on “Loser.”

“She’s incredible,” says McMurray. “She’s from Detroit, but I didn’t know her personally. I was going to have Sweet Pea [sing on the tune]. He passed unexpectedly last year. That threw me off. I didn’t know what she would sing. She got inside the lyrics, and it was magical. It’s incredible. When Don [Was] heard it, he flipped and thought it was great. I wanted to get Bob Weir on it. It was the last thing he did. He walked in and heard her singing and then plugged his guitar in. Don [Was] sent me a picture and said, ‘He’s doing it.’ That’s the final blessing on the album.”

For the live show, McMurray says he’ll play a mix of music and anticipates a high-energy show.

“I’m going to some of everything," he says. "I go back and forth. I might do something funky and then do something from the ’50s and ’60s. I can jump around. The one thing I don’t wanna do is smooth jazz. That’s not what I do. I’ll keep it varied, and I’ll be swinging and the whole shot. It should be fun.”

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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