An unlikely pairing, pop singer Macy Gray and jazz sax man David Murray, aim for alchemy on a tour coming to Minneapolis this week.
Listening to a simpatico vocalist and horn player is one of the more beguiling experiences jazz has to offer. When Sarah Vaughan met up with trumpeter Clifford Brown, bebop was suddenly imbued with a pastel-blue beauty. And few duos ever plumbed the soulful depths of improvisation like Billie Holiday and saxophonist Lester Young.
On the surface, Macy Gray and David Murray don’t seem like ideal candidates to conjure such alchemy.
Gray, who will perform with Murray’s Infinity Quartet on Sunday and Monday at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, has struggled to regain her commercial and creative equilibrium since her distinctively raspy voice was omnipresent on the pop hit “I Try” in 1999. And although Murray has worked with such vocalists as Cassandra Wilson and the late Fontella Bass, he is more renowned as co-founder of the World Saxophone Quartet, and as a prolific firebrand whose honks and skronks initially earned him comparisons to avant heroes Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp.
But Gray and Murray are such riveting stylists that the notion of a collaboration is a delicious prospect. You can hear it starting to happen on YouTube videos of Gray performing with Murray’s big band in Europe last summer, and during Gray’s guest appearance on the title track to the Infinity Quartet’s new album, “Be My Monster Love.”
Murray and Gray met through Questlove, drummer for the Roots and music director of the Jimmy Fallon show, who enlisted them for a 2011 project called “Afro-Picks.” Gray subsequently asked Murray to help out on a track for her 2012 album “Covered.” Murray, in turn, invited her to sing on his European big band tour.
From the warmth and excitement in their voices during separate interviews, you get the feeling that the best is yet to come.
Murray says Gray reminds him of the legendarily sonorous tenor saxophonist Ben Webster: “You hear the buzz of her voice before you actually hear her voice.
“The word is powerful when Macy is onstage. She is a diva; she commands excitement. I have to bring my game up and get inside of her voice.”
It’s a surprisingly humble assessment from someone regarded as one of the planet’s finest saxophonists — plenty powerful in his own right.
For her part, Gray says she and Murray “get along to a magic degree — I just love the way he writes, the way he plays. My first band was a jazz band so this is not that new to me, but I recognize being able to work with David as a great opportunity.”
Murray likewise regards their work together as a chance to expand his range. After using lyrics from novelist and writer Ishmael Reed on “Monster Love,” he has begun to write his own words in recent months, regularly sending Gray new songs and fresh arrangements to old standards.
“If she likes the lyrics, half the war is won — she is very particular about her lyrics,” Murray says affectionately. “I gave her five songs the other day and she liked three of them. I was lucky. We did a couple of Ellington things, because she likes Ellington and I like Ellington.”
Gray said they “have so much material now, we probably won’t do the same show twice.”
For Murray, it is part of the process. Although the Infinity Quartet includes ace musicians — drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Jaribu Shahid from the new album will be at the Dakota — he regards this tour as a chance to build that inimitable rapport between a horn and a voice.
“We started out [playing together] as a big band and then it morphed into a quartet. Now we’d like to do a quartet record with her, coming out of this tour, and do it right, do it really right. It will give me a chance as a soloist to really stretch out with her, so that it is less of a pounding session and more of a listening session. There will be a lot of me and Macy in the middle of it. Sometimes I’ll be playing what she is singing and sometimes she’ll be singing what I am playing.”
“We’re really in tune with each other, it is really organic that way,” Gray confirmed. “He is just really spontaneous onstage, really in the moment. It is pretty awesome.”