Merl Saunders

Well-Matched: The Best of Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia

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For five years in the early '70s Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders headed up a loose-knit club band in the San Francisco area (the group never had an official name) specializing in a graceful mix of jazz, R&B, blues, gospel, and light funk with hints of bop, fusion, and even reggae. Aside from the two-volume Live at Keystone (1973), most of the group's recorded output appeared on various Saunders releases on Fantasy Records, and this remarkably cohesive compilation picks key tracks from all of these, with roughly half of the set coming from the Keystone LPs. Garcia is in full flight here as a guitarist, with Saunders' soul-jazz organ giving things a wonderfully fluid feel, and the end result is a kind of laid-back West Coast jazz-rock that is very much the sum of its parts. Among the highlights in what is a very strong sequence are the nearly 12-minute version of "Mystery Train" that opens things here, the floating elegance of the instrumental "Merl's Tune," the fusion-feel "Welcome to the Basement" with a guest shot from the Tower of Power Horns, and an interesting take on Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come," which was still a relatively unknown tune when this version was recorded in 1973. Jerry Garcia and Grateful Dead fans will no doubt appreciate all of this, but Well-Matched also functions as a kind of introduction to Saunders as well, whose good-natured and pop-inflected approach to soul-jazz deserves to be better known.

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