Rant ‘N’ Roll: Diva Macy Gray And Saxman David Murray – An Unlikely Pairing?

Is Macy Gray and David Murray an unlikely pairing? One might think so at first glance: the R&B funk singer with the unruly mop of hair and over-the-top on stage personality, who has sold over 14 million albums, and the quiet introspective saxophone master whose flirtations with the avant-garde belie his traditionalist bebop sensibility. Yet the answer to that musical question is no.

Think of Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown or Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Sure, Gray may not be in the league of those two vocal legends, but she does harbor a smoky, individualistic, left-of-center kind of raspy voice that does, indeed, lend itself to the writing and the staunch sax support that David Murray provides. And he’s had a thing for working with female voices like Cassandra Wilson and Fontella Bass. He recruited her for his current Be My Monster Love CD and she performed admirably enough that the two are now touring behind it.

Murray, of course, co-founded the World Saxophone Quartet, and is more known for his way-out excursions into the stratosphere à la Albert Ayler or Archie Shepp. Now, though, at 58, he’s less of a firebrand provocateur than he is an elder statesman for real jazz. And you just know he had Lady Day and Prez in mind when he wrote his new music for sax and female voice. (The two made some beautiful music together on a project by Roots drummer Questlove and continued their collaboration on Gray’s 2012 Covered album.)

At the Musikfest Café in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Gray performed her sultry role with aplomb, diluting her usual outrageousness to be in total service to the song. Murray responded with a dynamite series of solos that accentuated every Gray syllable. If there’s an on stage musical version of making love, this was it.

Murray, so cool in his every honk, swayed on the bandstand like David “Fathead” Newman, swiveling his hips, rolling his eyes and totally getting into it.

Gray seemed a tad preoccupied that she had to work during Game 6 of the NBA Finals. “The Heat better win,” she said early on. Then later, “I should be watching LeBron James right now!” Then, still later, after the encore, “Okay, let’s all go home and watch the game!”

But that’s Macy.

Still, when she wrapped her lungs around “In My Solitude,” the 1934 jazz standard by Duke Ellington, she mesmerized the crowd. Ice cubes in glasses stopped tinkling, coughing stopped, even the waitresses seemed to go in slow motion as Murray blew alternately cool and hot and Gray’s breathless, evocative and oh-so-sensual reading was goose bump-inducing. Murray has turned into the kind of lyricist who writes with his singer in mind. Thus, her performance of Murray’s title tune to the new album had her singing lines like “Let your hair grow long/Let your fingernails become claws.”

It was Murray’s gig, no doubt about it. His band played without her at first, before she came on in true diva style to overwhelming response, resplendent in her floor-length pink-sequined ballroom gown, a towering presence. Two songs later, one of them, “Relating To A Psychopath,” a nod to her 2001 The Id album, she was gone. After Murray blew supreme for another round of vocal-less solos, complete with his signature blips, bleeps, squawks and squeals, she returned in a different dress (don’t ask me to describe it). With four costume changes in all as she exited and entered in entertaining fashion, Murray was the only constant.

Then I did as I was told and ran home to thrill to the Miami Heat’s stunning Game 6 win.