Dave Murray Infinity Quartet with Macy Gray at The Dakota, 6/23/13

Dave Murray Infinity Quartet with Macy Gray at The Dakota, 6/23/13
Elena Haynes

It's a strange coincidence that the Twin Cities were graced by performances from two of neo-soul's most embattled stars on the same Sunday evening, but it offers a great chance for comparison of their respective legacies and comeback-stories. While D'Angelo and recent co-conspirator Questlove reigned over First Avenue a few blocks away, Macy Gray, the R&B songstress probably best known for her Grammy-winnng "I Try" gave the well-heeled patrons of the Dakota a surprising treat with Jazz legend Dave Murray in tow.

Macy and Dave's collaboration proved to be a specific project, rather than a nostalgia-oriented reboot of the material that made her famous. Framed around the structure of a dinner show, their performance was light but thoroughly satisfying, showcasing Murray's incredible talents as a tenor soloist as well as his aces new combo, the Infinity Quartet.

A titan of the post-bop landscape who spent his youth earning a reputation as a fearless, structure-averse tenor wailer, Dave Murray has mellowed out a bit with age but hasn't lost any of his edge. Since his heyday in the New York avant-garde loft-jazz era of the late '70s and early '80s, the saxophonist has moved steadily towards more mainstream material but continues to inject his interpretations with the crooked and beguiling techniques of free-jazz. His work with the Infinity Quartet, which he debuted on his recently released album Be My Monster Love, has pushed Murray further in to the realm of soulful, gospel influenced Bop reminiscent of greats like Charles Mingus. The combo, made up of Nasheet Waits on drums, Jaribu Shaheed on bass and Gordon Hudson filling in on piano and organ, crackled with all of the warmth of a summer fire-pit and demonstrated incredible technical skills in a manner that never overshadowed the melody .

With a charmingly down-home introduction, Murray and his band kicked off the show with a few hot jazz numbers before welcoming their vocalist to the stage with the superlative "Early 20th Century Avatar Diva...Macy Gray!" Always a master of her aesthetic, Macy looked the part, with a full-length pink sequined gown and massive feather boa leading up to her trademark shock of hair. Seizing the room with her uniquely vunerable, scratchy voice, the diva began her portion of the night with "Relating to a Psychopath" from her oddball 2001 release The Id. Not that you'd recognize it however, as the Infinity Quartet version of the song traded the psychedelic soul styles of the original for a zippy, uptempo swing.

Similar to her neo-soul colleague playing around the corner, Macy Gray's had a tough few years since her star seemed to peak in the early aughts, and battles with drugs and depression have already sunk a couple of attempts at career revitalization. Here's hoping this one sticks, however, as her smoky rasp is as enthralling as ever, now tinted with a hard-living blues reminiscent of the great Lady Holiday. The jazz underscoring seem to suit her tender but flinty voice particularly well, giving Gray space to stretch out syllables into dizzying melisma. Songs like the title track from Murray's new album rode on effortless grooves established by Hudson and Shaheed and allowed Macy and Dave to weave effortless harmonies around one another's instruments.

Composed of several mini-sets, the show rotated cast members on and off stage to create unique pairings and add some variety to the night. Macy would occasionally leave the stage to change outfits (she wore three different ensembles during the hour long set), and also to give the Quartet space to play a few more riveting instrumentals. One of these breaks included an incredible, show-stopping tenor cadenza from Murray, who squealed and squaked his way to the stratospheric limits of his instrument, letting pitch and melody fly into the wind for a moment. A later solo from drummer Nasheed Waits was a similarly pyrotechnic display of prowess, starting in a low tom roll and ending in a blasting, rock-influenced crash out.

While the entertainment was over quickly, Macy made sure that the crowd was involved in the finale, willing a call-and-response vocal for a gospel-style rave up that pushed some patrons out of their seats to dance along. While she teased us for being "awfully quiet," the diva seemed more than happy to share her new look with the appreciative room, and her chemistry with her new band is palpable. It's always a rare treat to witness a performer who many had counted out return to form, and with Dave Murray's monolithic presence on the sax filling the room, it's hard not to hope that the two will continue to work together. While it may not have been the biggest show downtown last night, it certainly proved memorable.

Critic's Bias: A bit of an outsider when it comes to Jazz, currently working on remedying that.

The Crowd:Definitely on the posher side, but that could have just been the Dakota's swank atmosphere.

Random Notebook Dump: Starting to wonder just how big of a wardrobe Macy brings with her from town to town. Based on last night's variety and her reputation, it's probably pretty sizeable.

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