The Berkeley Item - #275


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For a five-year period in the early / mid-1970s, the association of keyboardist MERL SAUNDERS and guitarist-vocalist JERRY GARCIA was fruitful for both musicians, as well as for fans who witnessed their now-legendary performances in San Francisco Bay Area clubs (and occasional East Coast venues). It made the venerable jazz organist and pianist an icon in the world of rock, and it opened new avenues of improvisation for the innovative rock guitar player.

Highlights from their Fantasy recordings of the period have now been collected by Grateful Dead authority David Gans in the new CD Well-Matched: The Best of Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia, due for release 5/23 on Fantasy.

About half of the material was originally issued on Live at Keystone, a 1973 double album recorded at Keystone Berkeley with bassist John Kahn and drummer Bill Vitt. (Garcia biographer Blair Jackson, who contributed notes to the new package, was in the audience that night, visiting from New York. He found it such a moving experience that he relocated to Berkeley soon thereafter!)

Tom Fogerty, Bill Kreutzmann, David Grisman, Vassar Clements, and Walter Hawkins are also featured on the new CD, whose tracks range from rock ("Mystery Train") and reggae ("The Harder They Come") to blues ("That's Alright") and R&B (a previously unreleased rendition of Smokey Robinson's “I Second That Emotion").

Garcia once told an interviewer that working with Saunders “required a whole lot of quick education for me. . . . He really helped me improve myself on a level of harmonic understanding. . . . I never had any approach to the world of regular, straight music. [Merl] knows all the standards and he taught me how bebop works. He taught me music."

Merl Saunders, now 74, still lives in San Francisco and continues to recover from the effects of a stroke suffered nearly four years ago. (Jerry Garcia died in 1995, at the age of 53.) Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Flora Purim, and Airto Moreira are among those who've been instrumental in Merl's musical rehabilitation, reports Merl Saunders Jr. (who's the Executive Director of the San Francisco chapter of NARAS). “They spend time with him whenever they're in town."

“I'm happy people still love my father's music," says Merl Jr. of Well-Matched. “In the era of the jam band, this music seems as fresh as ever. It's timeless."

New bookings for SONNY ROLLINS and his band, who are working in Europe for most of May: 9/19 University of Champaign (IL); 10/20 Masonic Auditorium, San Francisco; 10/22 University of California, Santa Barbara; 11/17 University of Arizona, Tucson; 11/19 Scottsdale (AZ) Center for the Arts; 12/1 Verizon Hall, Philadelphia. Visit him online at http://www.sonnyrollins.com

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