There’s a way to tell that Dave McMurray gets it. On his second album of Grateful Dead covers, the saxophonist builds this nine-song collection like a killer Dead show. Emerging out of the atmospheric haze with a hard bop starter, “Playing in the Band,” he then explores, moving with scenic-route, but ever-focused pace towards a first-half closing “To Lay Me Down” that is as scintillating as they come. McMurray’s energized second stanza, too, elevates with conscientious thought, culminating with the rousing, reggae-flecked “Crazy Fingers.” 

In between is the second way to tell McMurray is doing it right, as he welcomes and attracts top-shelf players such as his old Was (Not Was) mate, bassist Don Was, currently one of Bob Weir’s Wolf Bros, and bassist and singer Oteil Burbridge, of Dead and Co., as well as jazz legend Bob James to join the jams peppered into McMurray’s challenging and relentlessly uplifting arrangements. Treating the Dead’s catalog as a springboard for a genre trip- in this case, one through mostly jazz and soul- is not a new concept; it’s even, as stated, McMurray’s own second go-round. Yet, when he has the sharpened insight to bring in a contemporary Country/Americana icon, Jamey Johnson, on the aforementioned “To Lay Me Down,” it offers a refreshingly inventive layer of magic to already classic material. 

There’s plenty left in the Dead’s songbook if McMurray wants to take a third spin in the Grateful orbit, but if these two suffice for him, he’s given a terrific companion couple. And even as it’s a testament to the pliability of the Dead’s repertoire, it’s not an inherent given that such tributes will entertain, pay homage, and move the music forward in some evocative and worthwhile fashion. This one does. McMurray gets it, again.