Jerry Garcia & Merl Saunders: GarciaLive Volume 15: May 21st, 1971, Keystone Korner, San Francisco, CA (ALBUM REVIEW)

Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders’ May 21st, 1971 Keystone Korner derives from the early days of the longstanding collaboration between these two deeply kindred spirits and covers what is, in retrospect, very familiar stylistic ground in the nascent stages of exploration. Back cover disclaimer on audio quality aside, Fred Kevorkian’s mastering of Jeff Ziegler’s mix achieves the optimum combination of atmosphere and clarity (as does the eye-pleasing color scheme of the cover art).

By dint of some selections such as “Mystery Train,” this double-disc plants the seeds of the Jerry Garcia Band as its career would eventually evolve over more than two decades. Meantime, the appearance by saxophonist Martin Fierro also represents some early stirrings of the ensemble that would be known as Legion of Mary. Yet, in even more practical terms as well, GarciaLive Volume 15  benefits from the saxophonist’s presence on a handful of cuts, not coincidentally including two of the longest here; at sixteen-plus minutes and just shy of a half-hour respectively, “Keystone Korner Jam” and “Save Mother Earth, ” are fully indicative of the loose, spontaneous atmosphere Garcia and Saunders wanted to nurture. And that musicianly ambition is in keeping with the pedigree of Keystone Korner as a haven for astute jazz players (whose names are pictured on the back cover of the enclosed booklet). 

The natural empathy between the two—and steady but unobtrusive drummer Bill Vitt— precludes aimless noodling. Such disciplined logic becomes readily apparent in the very opening as the trio regular returns to the main themes of “Man-Child,” a pattern that holds for the duration of this near-complete performance recording (it’s only missing the encore of “Deal” due to technical glitches). Garcia’s work with Saunders allowed him extra freedom to stretch out in a more informal setting than with the Grateful Dead, the fruitful prospects for which were enhanced through the intimacy of a venue such as this two-hundred seat room. 

Accordingly, the ensemble artfully maintains a keen balance between restraint and expansion during the course of the largely instrumental, near-two hours total. Regular sources of traditional blues and r&b material come in the form of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “One Kind Favor” and Jimmy Rogers’ “That’s All Right,” while other subsequently reliable future repositories of the song for JGB emerge as Stevie Wonder’s early Motown tune “I Was Made to Love Her” as well as The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” In combinations with subtle variations in the arrangement (especially tempo), such choices supply pacing to the show elevated through the snappy back-and-forth of the threesome (and the foursome on those five selections with Fierro,) . 

The musicianship ebbs and flows without any discernible flagging of momentum. Jimmy Reed’s “I Know It’s A Sin” does threaten to plod, but it eventually ends up one of the most concise renditions on the set, a marked contrast indeed with this expansive twelve-minute plus take on David Crosby’s “The Wall Song;” Garcia worked on the author’s solo albums more than once, including the studio version of this very tune, and here the number becomes the subject of some patient exchanges between the guitarist and the keyboardist, not to mention purposeful excursions over, under, around and through the number’s unpredictable melodic turns.

Intentional or not, as a follow-up to the duo document of Volume 14 The Ritz New York, NY January 27, 1986, the release of this particular GarciaLive reaffirms the overall continuity of the archive series. Rare as it was for the titular leader of the Dead to perform outside the group without bassist John Kahn, his partner on the previous all-acoustic duo title (and so many others), it’s refreshing to hear Jerry in action with so small a unit. Clearly the two principals enjoyed each other’s playing, but in such direct collaborations, each not only helped the other to further hone a well-established style of playing, but also to significantly broaden their respective musical tastes. 

Fundamentally compatible as are the two principals on Keystone Korner, May 21st, 1971, then, it’s no surprise that, as described so vividly by essayist Benjy Eisen (co-author of Bill Kreutzmann’s memoir), the relationship would transcend the musical. After Jerry Garcia suffered a diabetic coma in the summer of 1986, Merl Saunders was the one that took the lead in reintroducing the man to the guitar, a gesture of deep and abiding generosity that has its roots in the real-time bonding captured on these recordings.

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