“Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings” by Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia

Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia
Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings
Fantasy Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

To suggest this set transports us to a very different time is an understatement.

Berkeley, California, 1973. The Grateful Dead are riding high exploring Americana (a term still a couple decades away from widespread use), Jerry Garcia is about to turn thirty-one, and he is making bluegrass with Old & in the Way alongside David Grisman, Vassar Clements, and Peter Rowan.

Garcia is also learning. From 1970, Garcia has been jamming with Merl Saunders, a San Francisco-born, New York-inspired jazz keyboard player who initially didn’t know who Garcia was—”he was Jerry with the smiling face,” Saunders is quoted as having said. Over time, the pair learned from each other, with Garcia claiming, “[Saunders] taught me how bebop works. He taught me music,” and moved from jamming to gigs.

Sometimes billed as The Group, Garcia, Saunders, bassist John Kahn, and drummer Bill Vitt played a two-night stand at The Keystone on University Avenue July 10 and 11, 1973, the recordings of which have been released in several different configurations—including these recordings—on CD and digitally in 2012. This six-record set housed in a sturdy box along with an album-sized sixteen page booklet featuring updated notes from David Gans is the first time the two concerts have been released in their entirety on vinyl.

Featuring 24 songs, of which only seven are repeated, Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings is the type of collection that can only be produced with an attention to detail and an appreciation for music that goes beyond financial. Had I never heard it, I would have been lesser for the lack of experience.

I came to Garcia late, appreciating him first as a member of Old & in the Way when I encountered them about twenty-five years ago, which is also the way I am familiar with John Kahn. The first time I recall listening to the Grateful Dead was when “Touch of Grey” was a hit (not cool, I know) and later when I discovered Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty decades after they were released. I had never heard of Merl Saunders or Bill Vitt until this collection made its way to me.

I am most obviously not the target audience for this expensive, but valued, set. For all my grousing about mindless jazz and endless noodling over the years, I never once felt bored during Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings almost four-hour running time.

The music is simultaneously rootsy and jazzy, and the improvisational jams stretch out so liberally that the listener has to let go of preconceived notions. “My Funny Valentine,” presented both evenings as an 18-minute plus opus, is the only song that could be classified as a jazz standard. Motown—”I Second That Emotion,” “How Sweet It is (To Be Loved By You)”—and Dylan—(“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” “Positively 4th Street”—are taken for long, meandering, and entirely enjoyable rides.

“The Harder They Come” is given a funkier, less militant groove than some may expect, while “Mystery Train” (all eleven and a half minutes of it,) “Money Honey,” and “That’s Alright, Mama” keep things grounded in rock ‘n’ roll traditions. At their heaviest on Z. Z. Hill’s “It Ain’t No Use,” most of the music is languid and even leisurely. As befits such a collaboration, genre labels are meaningless within the setting: yes, there are identifiable features of jazz and rock apparent, but there are also healthy doses of R&B, folk, country, and even a hint of bluegrass progressions.

Saunders contributes a pair of tunes each show. His co-write with Kahn “Keepers” is quirky and inspirational, but it is his signature contribution of “Merl’s Tune” that is the highlight. Perhaps the most expansive tune within the sets, “Merl’s Tune” features not only incredible guitar work from Garcia, but some stunning bass runs from Kahn. Everything is focused on supporting Saunders’ organ groove. The second version of “Merl’s Tune” is a bit tighter, more focused, perhaps.

Garcia is in excellent voice throughout—his comfort within himself in the environment is apparent—and the rhythm section of Kahn and Vitt is intractably solid. If there are glitches within this recording, by Betty Cantor and Rex Jackson, they are not apparent. Close your eyes, and you are transported to what must have been a smoke-filled room with folks who are all under the spell of master musicians.

Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings closes with the one-two caress of Don Nix and Dan Penn’s “Like A Road Leading Home” (a favored Garcia-Saunders tune) and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You,”) a suitable ending to an uninhibited musical journey:

When the road gets too long,
And you run all out of song;
The pain gets too much for you to bear,
Turn around, turn around, turn around and I’ll be there,
Like a road, like a road leading home.