ALLENTOWN, Pa. — It might seem like an odd pairing — Grammy-winning R&B-and-dance singer Macy Gray and Grammy-winning saxophonist David Murray.
It was a match made in the hip-hop producer Questlove’s search for artists to create his 2011 stage show “Afro-Picks,” about the immense impact African funk and soul had on American music.
Questlove, who also is the drummer for Philadelphia band The Roots, found the story’s voice in Gray, whose raging, raspy vocals took her to the top of the charts in 1999 with the song “I Try” and a decade later with “Beauty in the World.”
As Questlove collected players for the project, he brought on saxophonist Murray, who has released more than 150 albums in the past 35 years and whom The Village Voice chose as its Musician of the Decade in 1980.
“That’s how we met, and then we started doing stuff together,” Gray says in a phone call. She says that after “Afro-Picks,” she enlisted Murray to work on her 2012 album “Covered,” on which she sings other artists’ hits, then he asked her to sing at his concerts.
“And it just evolved from there,” Gray says. Most recently, Gray sang the title song on Murray’s “Be My Monster Love,” released June 11 as the prolific musician’s first album as a quartet in six years.
They also have taken to the road together, with Gray fronting Murray’s quartet.
They play some of Gray’s songs, some of Murray’s, and “a couple of really awesome covers,” Gray says. The attraction, she says, is that “it’s four really, really incredible (players). The thing about David is he gets the most amazing players. So you’ll hear, like, incredible music.”
In recent years, Gray has been big on collaborations and covers of other people’s music.
After the massive success of “I Try” from her triple-platinum debut album “On How Life Is,” and the gold follow-up, 2001’s “The Id,” Gray went on to work with more seemingly incongruous partners — Guns ‘N Roses’ guitarist Slash and members of Velvet Revolver on her 2010 disc “The Sellout.” That disc produced “Beauty in the World,” which hit No. 2 on the dance chart.
Then, in 2012, Gray released “Covered,” which included songs by Radiohead, the Eurythmics and even Metallica.
She might have tackled her toughest assignment last year when she did an entire reboot of Stevie Wonder’s landmark 1972 album “Talking Book.” The album’s first single, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” won Wonder the first of his record 22 Grammy Awards. Gray says the disc was the idea of famed producer Hal Willner.
“He was talking about covers, and he thought about covering some Nina Simone songs and he said, ‘What, really, you should do is cover a whole album, because no one’s ever done that before.’ … And one my favorite records that I know inside and out is ‘Talking Book.’ So that’s the one I wanted to do.”
Gray says she wasn’t intimidated by covering Wonder at first, but “once we got into it, it was a little scary because … the more challenging it got, to actually remake those songs without it being karaoke. And, of course, no one’s going to ever quite live up to — not even quite, but not even come close — to Stevie Wonder.
“But it was kind of like re-doing those songs without, like, pretending that you can come close,” she says with a laugh. But she says Wonder since has assuaged her concerns. “He said he liked it a lot,” she says. “He had listened to the whole thing and he said he was honored that I would do something like that.”
Gray says her next project is another collaboration. She has formed a duo called The New with singer Jason Hill, who also has worked with The Killers and David Bowie. They’re about six songs into the project, and hope to get out a single soon, Gray says.
“It’s just the two of us,” she says. “We wrote all the songs, produced all of them, and … so kind of like The Eurythmics. That’s the closest thing I can think of,” she says.
In fact, Gray says keeping things different is what made “I Try” such a hit.
“I think when it came out, it was different than anything anybody had heard before,” she says. “I think it was fresh and I think that still works today when you have something refreshing and people aren’t hearing it over and over and over again all day.
“I think they listen, and then I think if it has some kind of content or just, you know, musically or image-wise, then I think people will definitely pay attention. I just think you can pique people’s attention that way.”
Working with Murray definitely is different, Gray says.
“It’s a whole different experience — performing with a band that size and that kind of music,” she says. “They’re a different kind of musicians. I won’t say they’re better, but, you know, they’re just different. It’s a different aspect of playing.
“When you do pop music, or anything related to pop, it’s called pop because you’re trying to please people. You want to make people dance or buy your records. But jazz is completely self-indulgent, and lots of solos. You know what I mean? There’s just a whole different way to play live. And I love it, though. It’s definitely challenging for me.”
Murray, in a separate call from his Paris home, agrees that changing things up is a great way to keep a career fresh. In addition to his solo discs, over the years he has recorded in duos, trios, quartets, quintets and big bands.
Murray says his new album comes as a quartet simply because that’s the band he needed “to cover the ground.” But he says this set of musicians is extraordinarily good: Marc Cary on piano, Jaribu Shahid on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums.
Bobby Bradford, renowned trumpeter and Murray’s former teacher at Pomona College, joins the quartet for “The Graduate.” In addition to Gray, the disc features Grammy-nominated soul / jazz singer Gregory Porter on a couple songs.
The best part, Murray says, is getting out to play the songs live. He says that throughout his career, that’s what has meant most to him, and why he has performed in so many configurations.
“It’s a lot of music in your head — you listen to a lot of great bands, you get ideas … you want to replicate that,” he says. “I don’t want to be bored or go flat. In order to inspire yourself with your own music, it has to live. Composers tell you how good you are, but music doesn’t register until it’s heard.
“Until you bounce it off someone, to me, it doesn’t exist.”
Murray says his collaboration with Gray has been a delightful surprise.
“It really worked well — she has a lot of depth that I never really imagined,” he says. He says the paring “is growing stronger and stronger as we go.”
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