Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders: Garcia Live Volume Six: July 5, 1973

Their partnership lasted about four years and 250 shows but a new archival record suggests that it was some of the best music either Merl Saunders or Jerry Garcia made at the time. And just who is that mystery trumpeter?
Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders
Garcia Live Volume Six: July 5, 1973

Garcia and Saunders’ Improvisational Abilities Shine on New Archival Gem

Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia first performed together in December 1970. Between then and June 1975 they clocked 250 gigs. Saunders issued the LP Heavy Turbulence in early ’72 and, although credited solely to him, it features Garcia on all tracks and reflects the repertoire of their live shows from the era. The following year brought Fire It Up and two volumes of live performances from San Francisco’s the Keystone in July. Given the reputation and power both men had as great improvisers at the time, it’s little surprise that the Keystone records are regarded as the apex of their recorded output. (Until now.)

A total of eight official releases from that partnership exist, including a 1974 date from the Keystone. But this one, tracked at the small-ish Lion’s Share just after Independence Day ’73, is the one that takes them all. Garcia had not fallen into the deep end of hard drugs just yet and the rhythm section of Bill Vitt (drums) and John Kahn (bass) could follow along just fine with both he and Saunders. The song selection is choice and the group sounds hungry for new musical heights.

The record opens with a magical rendition of J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight”, weaves into an equally potent “Someday Baby” and stretches out across an 18-minute “She’s Got Charisma” that finds Garcia delivering some of his most potent and lyrical playing from that year. He works the thicker registers of his guitar tones for the most part, something that would become less a part of his sound as the decade wore on. His lines move everywhere from blues to jazz to space rock and everything in between. Vitt responds to these excursions with rhythms and fills that are both supportive and reactive while Saunders weaves his way in and around his partner, rising and falling with the rest of the ensemble in the perfect sync that made the Keystone recordings such a pleasure to hear.

The group tempers the more amorphous tendencies of that track with a more straight-ahead but no less blistering, soul-stirring take on “That’s Alright Mama”. In the track’s later moments, Saunders let loose some of his most inventive and urgent playing, driving the band to a conclusion that will induce smiles no matter how many listens one undertakes.

Things get freakier, funkier and dirtier come the second disc, especially when Saunders takes lead vocals on “The System”, wherein divisions between one instrument and the next disappear and the collective mind of the band reaches a boiling point. Thankfully the set doesn’t climax there. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” finds Garcia reaching for a few notes but the warmth of his voice carries the tune just as it does during a life-altering “I Second That Emotion”. That’s followed by Village Vanguard-era Coltrane-style run through “My Funny Valentine” which features impossibly great trumpet soloing by a mystery guest. Whoever this was, he and Garcia communicated on as high a musical level as Garcia and Saunders.

Perhaps somewhat predictably it’s the third and final installment of this set where things fall into place and the mothership takes off and soars into the stratosphere. Check Saunders out on “Money Honey”, a song so down and dirty everyone on your block will have to wash their clothes each time you listen. But it’s the final half hour, which begins with “Merl’s Tune”, segues into “Lion’s Share Jam”, and then gives way to “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)”, that this record really earns its keep and we fully realize how much of a gem has been sitting around behind locked doors all these years.

There are numerous Garcia and Dead-related recordings that slip into public each year but this is probably the best for 2016. Now, if we could just find out who the heck is playing trumpet we’d be in great shape.

RATING 8 / 10