In 2012, Macy Gray went on tour as a vocalist for jazz saxophonist and former World Saxophone Quartet member David Murray and his big band.
It became an eye-opening experience that she feels is having an impact on the show she will deliver this fall as she tours behind her soon-to-be-released new album, “The Way.”
“I think the main thing is it kind of turned me on to a certain caliber of musicians. Jazz musicians are kind of a whole other planet of musicians’ skill,” Gray said, as she looked back on the tour with Murray in an early September phone interview. “It just raised the bar for me as far as the musicians that I wanted to be around, and just the level of excellence on stage, to be really not only entertaining, but just to be really, really good at what you do.”
In a larger sense, Gray seems to have gained better control of her career, her music — and her life — as she prepares to release “The Way.”
In fact, “The Way” finds Gray sounding much like the artist wowed the public on her 1999 debut album, “How Life Is,” drawing on influences that include hip-hop, rock, R&B, jazz and soul to create a gritty, grooving, highly intoxicating sound that smartly blurs the lines between urban and rock genres.
Gray thinks there’s a particular reason why she was able to be especially true to herself on the new album.
“I didn’t have a lot of people in my ear telling me what I should do and what I shouldn’t do and what I should try this time and I needed to change things up,” she said in her famous raspy voice. “So that was the difference. I wasn’t attached to a label when I started this record, so that was a different freedom and no kind of like suggestions or advice. It was just me who I was in the studio with, and we got to do whatever we wanted.”
As Gray suggests, her career had gone off track since the early years.
It began emphatically, of course, with “How Life Is.” Fueled by the smash hit single “I Try,” the debut went triple platinum with sales of more than three million copies in the United States alone. It was quite a whirlwind period for Gray, who also gained a reputation during this time for her unpredictable behavior and diva-ish ways. A mother of three teen-agers, she seems more settled now, but said she relished her success.
“It was crazy, Gray said. “Mostly I just had all of this money all of a sudden and I just wanted to go spend it. I got to meet people I never dreamed I’d meet, and getting into parties that I always saw on
TV. And I got to see the world. It’s different when you’re younger.
Like if it happened to me now, I’d have a whole different answer for you. But back then, I was so excited that I had all of that money and all of this stuff. I could buy, clothes and shoes and like sending my parents money. I just really had a lot of fun, ridiculous fun. I rode on a jet for the first time in my life, stuff like that. I had diamonds for the first time ever. So I was just really caught up in going shopping and going to parties.
“Oh yeah, I had a ball,” she concluded.
But the salad days didn’t last that long. The albums that followed —
2001’s “The Id,” 2003’s “The Trouble with Being Myself,” 2007’s “Big,”
2010’s “The Sellout” and 2011’s collection of cover tunes, “Covered” — received mixed reviews, indifferent sales and left many seeing Gray as an artist who never fulfilled her initial promise.
Whether with “The Way” Gray can recover the momentum that once seemed to have her on course to be a top-drawer R&B/pop star remains to be seen. But she seems to have found her musical mojo on the album.
“Bang Bang” — the song Gray said gave her a direction for the album — is a highlight. With its stinging guitar and funky beat, it’s a sassy, catchy treat. But there are other strong moments, too. “I Miss The Sex” percolates nicely under its electronic-laced jazzy, soul sound.
“Hands” is a bright, grooving bit of R&B flavored pop, while “King of the Big Hurt” is a lovely soul-flavored song that mixes silkiness with just the right amount of grit.
Gray is starting a tour to promote “The Way” and said she is keeping things real with her show.
“It’s pretty raw and it’s like old school, so it’s just me, bass, guitar, drums and keyboards,” Gray said. “You’re going to hear everything. There are no machines. It’s just us, and we’re playing the new album, of course, but we also have songs from all of the old ones, all six albums. And it’s about an hour and 45 minutes. It’s pretty sexy. It’s pretty awesome. My band is incredible and it’s a good show. It’s proper entertainment.”