Sure, why not the Grateful Dead? Jazz artists have long drawn upon the songs of the Beatles and other rockers as sources for fresh interpretation, yet the catalog of the Dead, arguably rock’s highest-profile purveyors of collective improvisation, has been largely ignored save for a handful of releases. Saxophonist Dave McMurray correctly recognizes that there’s much to mine in the group’s sizable canon: not only the jams that kept the Dead’s audiences twirling and swirling for 30 years, but also the more conventionally composed melodies they set down. Songs like “Eyes of the World,” “Franklin’s Tower,” and “Estimated Prophet” offer fresh templates, and Detroit’s McMurray—whose Blue Note debut, Music Is Life, was issued in 2018—gives them a whole new funky spin.
“Fire on the Mountain,” the opener, is ideal for the treatment. McMurray—accompanied by bassist Ibrahim Jones and drummer Jeff Canady (both returning from the debut), guitarist Wayne Gerard, keyboardist Maurice O’Neal, pianist Luis Resto, and percussionist Larry Fratangelo—takes care to rein in the temptation to go excessive: The changes are measured and well-executed, the solos crisp and creative. Early Dead jam vehicles like “Dark Star” and “The Eleven” open up several avenues of exploration, but so too do the more structured tunes. “Loser,” the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter ballad, features a soulful Bettye LaVette vocal turn as well as instrumentation from Dead co-founder Bob Weir (guitar) and his current band the Wolf Bros, which includes Blue Note president Don Was—in whose long-ago band, Was (Not Was), McMurray played—on bass.
To their credit, McMurray and his accompanists don’t attempt to mimic or channel the Grateful Dead in their arrangements, but rather to repurpose them. While the leader’s sax often appears where Garcia’s guitar once did, his approach, burly and decidedly less psychedelic, succeeds in bringing familiar material renewed life.