First Appeared at The Music Box, May 2001, Volume 8, #5
Written by John Metzger
Merl Saunders has once again turned to a concert setting to create his latest effort ó and first for the revamped Relix label. The album titled Struggling Man is Saundersí fourth live release in the past decade, following the funky strains of 1991ís Save the Planet So Weíll Have Someplace to Boogie, 1995ís Still Having Fun, and his 1997 best of set With His Funky Friends ó Live!. Unlike those releases, however, which found Saunders paired with his own Rainforest Band, Struggling Man unites the legendary keyboard player with the Toronto-based jazz-rock ensemble One Step Beyond. Itís a union that works well, and one hopes it will become more than just a single outing. Over time, the rough edges ó some of which found their way onto this release ó surely would be paved over by the sparkling chemistry of sonic painters working from the same slate.
Itís true that long before many of the musicians making up the current crop of jam bands were even born, Saunders had been merging funk with improvisational rock. Consequently, the infusion of One Step Beyondís jazzy horns into his steamy, undulating rhythms is a perfectly natural collaboration. Witness the saucy instrumental stew M.S., with its supple organ textures and slippery saxophone lead. Or listen to the way Jake Langleyís glorious guitar solo chimes in and lifts the title track out of the doldrums.
Yet, as long-time fans of Saunders can attest, the biggest cheers of the night are almost always reserved for his versions of Grateful Dead songs. Itís a double-edged sword, for sure. On one hand, Saunders has written many great tunes over the years that often donít get the recognition that they deserve. On the other hand, Deadheads make up a sizeable portion of Saundersí audience, and the way that he passionately reinvents the Deadís music can be quite a powerful force. Perfect examples of this can be found in the final two tracks on Struggling Man ó Franklinís Tower and Dark Star. On the former, Saunders allows the songís jubilant and bouncy melody to mutate into a thrilling funk-filled workout, while on the latter the group explores the trackís shimmering space-age dissonance with supreme aural clarity. Even on CD, the bar-band exuberance of Saundersí performance shines through and remains far superior to many of the jazz-funk bands that have since followed in his footsteps.
Struggling Man is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box