Merl Saunders/Jerry Garcia 'Complete 1973 Recordings'

Keystone Companions/The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings, recorded live on July 10 and 11, 1973 at the Keystone club in Berkeley, California, beautifully captures the magical musical friendship of keyboardist Merl Saunders and guitarist Jerry Garcia. The Fantasy Records lavish four-disc set, scheduled for September 25, 2012 release on the heels of the 70th anniversary of Garcia’s birth, includes seven previously unreleased tracks, a special booklet featuring vintage photos; liner notes by Grateful Dead expert David Gans; and a poster, coaster, button, and “scratchbook” (replicating the design of the original album’s promotional matchbooks).

The sterling band featured Saunders on keyboards; Garcia, guitar and vocals; John Kahn, bass; and Bill Vitt, drums. Virtuoso David Grisman added mandolin to Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.” The mix of songs ranged from Saunders originals to covers of songs by Jimmy Cliff, Junior Parker, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Rodgers & Hart, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Don Nix and Dan Penn and Dylan.

San Francisco-born keyboardist Merl Saunders had been writing and performing in New York before returning to the West Coast.  Producer Nick Gravenites offered him studio work that included playing with guitarist Jerry Garcia, already at the helm of one of the world’s most popular rock bands, the Grateful Dead.  “Garcia reminded me of [jazz guitarist] Eric Gale,” Saunders recollected, “Anything he played was very musical. He knew how to do a rhythm on any kind of tune — gospel, blues, jazz. I was amazed.”

Saunders also helped Garcia expand his harmonic knowledge and even showed him some Art Tatum runs. “He taught me music,” Garcia said of his friend.

By December 1970, a weekly jam session featuring Saunders, Garcia, Kahn, and Vitt had become a weekly gig at San Francisco’s Matrix. Of course Garcia was already a major figure in the musical counterculture as lead guitarist for the Dead, so he kept this new band low-key — so much that it never really had a name (although it was referred to as The Group at times.) As Garcia said, “I couldn’t take the pressure of being a double celebrity. It’s a drag just being it once.” (That didn’t stop the itinerant Garcia from having a third band as well, Old and In the Way, with David Grisman, Peter Rowan, and Vassar Clements.)

Live at Keystone, originally released as a double LP, was recorded by Grateful Dead associates Betty Cantor and Rex Jackson; all four artists are credited as producers. Additional material was released as Live at Keystone, Volumes 1 & 2 in 1988. Keystone Companions/The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings assembles the original recordings and presents them, remastered, in the order in which the songs were performed at those two shows. The repertoire spans blues, rockabilly, jazz, funk, Broadway, Motown, two Bob Dylan songs, and Jimmy Cliff’s immortal “The Harder They Come.” Some songs appear twice, providing the opportunity to hear how the band kept it loose and fresh.

As Gans notes, “This music is as exciting and satisfying 40 years later as it was on the day it was made.”

On the collection’s September 25 street date, Fantasy Records will also reissue, on multi-color double vinyl LP, the first Saunders/Garcia album Live at Keystone.

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