Fiesta Amazonica - Keepers
With His Funky Friends - Twilight Zone
First Appeared in The Music Box November 1998, Volume 5, #11
Written by John Metzger
Merl Saunders has been quite busy over this past year. He's managed to pull together an astounding four different releases — his solo album Fiesta Amazonica; a collection of unreleased tracks from his days at Fantasy Records, Keepers; a collection of music from The Twilight Zone; and a collection of previously released and unreleased tracks from his own vault, Merl Saunders with His Funky Friends.
It's certainly no surprise that Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia appears on all four releases. Saunders has been a central part of the San Francisco music scene for more than 30 years and is best known in the Deadhead community for his performances with Garcia — most notably with the '70s groups Legion of Mary and Reconstruction. Eventually the two musicians went their separate ways, though they remained close friends and occasionally recorded and performed together.
In 1990, Saunders recruited Garcia to perform on his beautiful instrumental disc Blues from the Rainforest. As this masterpiece soared to the top of the new age charts, Saunders formed the Rainforest Band for a national tour.
Since then, Saunders has released several live albums (Save the Planet so We'll Have Someplace to Boogie and Still Having Fun), the rock-oriented studio disc It's in the Air, and a collection of piano solos titled Meridien Dreams. But what he's really wanted to do is record a follow-up to Blues from the Rainforest. Sadly, the deaths of Garcia and percussionist Eddie Moore, both of whom played a central role on that project, forced Saunders to take a step back and rethink his strategy. As a result, Fiesta Amazonica, which was released this past February, is vastly different from most follow-up albums, and the setbacks Saunders has faced have helped him create another masterpiece and the best of his four new discs.
Instead of retreading the same ground as Blues from the Rainforest, Saunders explores a whole new realm of world-influenced music. With the help of more than twenty other musicians — including Jerry Garcia, Vince Welnick, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Rob Wasserman, Steve Kimock, and members of the Rainforest Band — Saunders has created a delightful collection that deserves and demands repeated listenings. The music is richly layered with aural textures drawn from the magical spirit of the Amazon Rainforest, while offering a prayer of hope for its survival.
Featured throughout most of Fiesta Amazonica is the voice of Bulgarian singer Mariana. Her powerful yet haunting expressions on Forest Dance unite perfectly with the delicate interplay of synthesizers, pan flute, and acoustic guitar to capture the magic of the Amazon. Likewise, Mariana's voice becomes a mantra-like chant on Walk the River. The song captures the hopeless desperation and sadness felt at the sight of the rainforest's destruction but quickly transforms this sadness into a burning energy that radiates the healing power of the Amazon's magic.
The title track is a celebration of the life and diversity that exists in the Amazon and features the stunning guitar work of Steve Kimock. Child's Play drives home the message of the importance of the rainforest to the children of the future. Its playful, infectious melody borrows a riff from Candy Man and wraps its serious overtones with a child-like innocence.
Saunders also adds a pair of tributes to Garcia (Nostalgia for Jerome) and Moore (Eduardo). Both are heartfelt reminders of how tenuous our hold on life can be, and they help to complete the circle of life outlined by this wonderful disc.
Fiesta Amazonica alone would be quite a work of art for one performer, but Saunders is not one to rest on his laurels. Instead, he plunged into the archives at Fantasy Records and culled over 70 minutes of material that he recorded between 1971 and 1975, with a variety of musicians including Garcia, Michael Bloomfield, Vassar Clements, Tom Fogerty, John Kahn, Martin Fierro, and David Grisman.
While Keepers is not as cohesive as other Saunders/Garcia collaborations such as Fire Up, Heavy Turbulence, or the Live at Keystone series, it's still quite enjoyable and features some incredibly strong performances. Highlights include the raging intensity of Bolinas Brown and a soulful Georgia on My Mind. On the former, Garcia and Fierro drive the song to the brink of insanity while Saunders acutely counters their punch with delicate mellotron accompaniment. On the latter, the classic Merl Saunders & Friends line-up of Garcia, Kahn, and Bill Vitt team-up for an emotional and stirring excursion. In addition, the presence Grisman and Clements on a blazing Mystery Train seems to up the ante as they help to push the song into a bluegrass frenzy.
In addition, Keepers also helps to fill in the gaps from earlier Fantasy releases. She's Got Charisma, which was omitted from the compact disc release of Fire Up, is included in this set as is the swirling jazz-funk instrumental I Was Made to Love Her, which was omitted from the original Live at Keystone releases.
In the process of pulling together the music for Fiesta Amazonica, Saunders dug through his archives and rediscovered the music he had produced for the Twilight Zone. The 1985 television series, based on Rod Serling's original program, featured music composed primarily by Saunders and the Grateful Dead.
Saunders used one of the series' instrumental tracks that featured Garcia and created a new composition for Fiesta Amazonica — the hallucinogenic Ayahuaca Zone. However, he also realized that the music was too good to keep locked up in a vault and recently released a soundtrack from the show.
Glancing through the list of episodes and reading the liner notes brings back vivid memories of the program — a testament to how incredible some of the installments really were. The same can be said for the music.
If you watched the program, you certainly must remember the music from Nightcrawlers, which was based around the percussion groove of Peter Gabriel's The Rhythm of the Heat. Other memorable tracks include the delicate and sweet Children's Zoo and the three-part Kentucky Rye, which moves from an upbeat country rocker to all-out weirdness.
Throughout the disc, happy scenes are scored with wild, joyous abandon. Of course, lurking just around the corner are dark, eerie moments that characterize the most frightening nightmare. This is exactly the type of collaboration you'd expect from Saunders and the Dead as they explore rock and jazz to create a soundtrack of soul-stirring mood music.
Finally, Saunders also plundered his archives for With His Funky Friends, a compilation of more recent material. The biggest fault of this disc is that half the tracks were already available via It's in the Air and Save the Planet so We'll Have Someplace to Boogie. Surely, there could have been some other unreleased material available for inclusion.
Nevertheless, the reissued tracks on With His Funky Friends are certainly outstanding efforts, handpicked by Saunders for the spontaneity and intensity of the collaborations. A truly incredible rendition of You Can Leave Your Hat On, recorded live in 1991, features inspired performances from Blues Traveler's John Popper and Zero's Steve Kimock. Play the Paris Blues, recorded in the studio in 1993, showcases the brilliant keyboard and lyrical interplay between Saunders and Dr. John.
But the real story is the new tracks. Dark Star features the Rainforest Band giving this Grateful Dead classic a stunning workout while leaving their own indelible impression on the song. Saunders' majestic keyboards surround and comfort the soaring guitar of Michael Hinton in a touching tribute to Jerry Garcia.
George Gershwin's Summertime, taken from a 1995 performance, finds Saunders on stage with David Grisman. The gentle ebb of Grisman's mandolin balances perfectly with Saunders' tender piano accompaniment to color the image of a caressing summer rain.
On We All Wanna Boogie, Phish's Trey Anastasio joins the Rainforest Band in Vermont, and the group proceeds to unleash a swirling blend of jazz and funk. Screamin' Jay Hawkins' I Put a Spell on You features the bluesy harmonica of Matthew Kelly and the fervent vocals of Mariana. With His Funky Friends concludes with a beautiful alternate version of Sunrise over Haleakala, which originally appeared on Saunders' Blues from the Rainforest disc.
Saunders is reportedly on vacation, but has already started thinking about his next album. In addition, he's writing his autobiography, creating a script for a children's movie, and composing music for a children's album. One thing is for certain — they'll all be nurtured to perfection with Saunders' typically classy touch.
Fiesta Amazonica —
Keepers — ½
Twilight Zone (Volume 1) — ½
Merl Saunders with His Funky Friends —
Fiesta Amazonica is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
Keepers is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
With His Funky Friends is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1998 The Music Box