Merl Saunders

Heavy Turbulence

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    8
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A versatile and engaging performer, Merl Saunders certainly put his best foot forward with his debut recording for the Fantasy label. His background in jazz was certainly welcome on an aesthetic level with the management of the label, but the splattering of Creedence Clearwater Revival imagery on this album's original protective paper sleeve suggests what the real goal must have been. Fantasy wanted more rock chart hits, and Saunders was seen as potentially a great crossover artist between the worlds of rock, soul, funk, and jazz fusion. That said, it should be pointed out that the label of world fusion did not exist when this record was recorded and is actually an area that Saunders got into in subsequent decades. One will not find Latin, African, or other international music influences on these five selections. This is pretty much a straight rock and funk effort, one of several totally solid albums produced by various members of Creedence Clearwater Revival on the side during this period. In this case it is Tom Fogerty directing the action. Since he is such a terrific rhythm guitarist, it is really no surprise that he and Saunders could create such a pumping oil well; this is an album in which the rhythmic feel of each song can never be faulted, no matter how different the approaches might be. The band is really well recorded, the tones thick and fat, and the grooves trembling from the fine organ fondling. The composed material consists of originals by Saunders with several interesting covers. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Imagine" are the remakes, each done quite personally with truly thoughtful arrangements. The status of these two songs as times have marched on is worth contemplating, while the mere presence of the tunes establishes a rich sense of time and place. The cover of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" would have been considered quite hip at one point, and then, perhaps sometime in the year 1976, a cosmic curtain of some kind shifted and the song was just considered downright corny. Anyone listening to this recording will have to lug around that cultural baggage, while the John Lennon song in contrast becomes more beloved each day, with the Saunders version actually a bit controversial amongst his fans. Some find it beautifully tasteful, others feel it drags, and the latter opinion is troubling since the version tracks at just barely over two and a half minutes, a shortie compared to other pieces on this record. Lead guitar fills by Jerry Garcia are a musical inspiration, as well as probably stimulating much of the original album's sales. Some listeners will be fanatic fans of this guitarist and others might regard him as musical vermin, but one and all would agree that this album has some of his top playing. He seems to have been at his best when at the side of Saunders, who once saved his life. Their efforts to play jazz together were a trifle feeble, true, but there is none of that here. The original numbers are on the funky and bluesy side, such as the terrific opener, "My Problem's Got Problems," and the delicious extended track, "Manchild."

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