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Raising the Dead

Daniel Miller

Horn-Again Dead: Saxophonist David Murray rethinks the Grateful Dead songbook on his experiment new album.

Jazzman David Murray gives new life to the Grateful Dead on his 'Dark Star' album

By Nicky Baxter

LEAVE IT to David Murray, one of contemporary music's more willfully mercurial souls, to take on the Grateful Dead--and get away with it. Deadheads, however, should be forewarned: Dark Star: The Music of the Grateful Dead (Astor Place Recordings) doesn't doodle, diddle or dawdle about as did the Grateful Dead in those inevitable "experimental" patches during live shows. As reconstituted by the David Murray Octet, the tenor saxophonist's brilliant ensemble, the San Francisco band's much-ballyhooed predilection for improvisation straightens up and flies right to the meat of the matter--which is to really groove.

Dead standbys like "Shakedown Street," "One More Saturday Night" and "Dark Star" assume new life, and much of the credit must go to Murray's little big band, which includes such stellar talents as alto saxophonist/flute player James Spaulding; trombonist Craig Harris; trumpeter James Zoller; and bassist Fred Harris (ex-Dead guitarist Bobby Weir sits in on "Shoulda Had Been Me.) Murray, who is responsible for the session's robust arrangements, doesn't "go out" just for the hell of it. Indeed, though things get wild and wool-headed occasionally on top (hear Zoller's zany solo on "Shakedown"), the rhythm section hews to the basics, aside from the episodic bout of tricky meters.

Murray's own tenor playing is, of course, brimming with invention, ferreting about in his instrument's middle register, then sprinting vertically to Albert Ayler territory--the dog whistle gone avant-garde. As Murray has shown throughout his tenure in his divergent permutations, he's no fat-head; he does his wild thing and then gets out of the way to allow whoever's next in line to blow. Intriguingly, the introduction to "One More Saturday Night" comes off like a cross between the Band, circa Rock of Ages, and the World Saxophone Quartet (another Murray project) doing Dixieland. The melody is easily recognizable and danceable, and Hopkins and drummer Renzell Merritt handle the fundamentals more like R&B vets than new-music mavericks, with Merritt pounding out a mammoth-sized beat.

In the view of many critics, Murray is the most exceptional multi-reed player to emerge since the death of John Coltrane some 30 years ago. That was as true when he arrived on the New Black Music scene in the middle of the 1970s as it is right now. It's no less true as we approach the next millennium.

The David Murray Octet plays July 31­Aug. 4 at 8 and 10pm at Yoshi's in Oakland. Tickets are $15/$18.

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From the July 25-31, 1996 issue of Metro

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