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'Keystone Companions' Highlights Merl Saunders-Jerry Garcia Collaboration

Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia on the album cover of "Keystone Companians" (Courtesy Concord Records)
Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia on the album cover of "Keystone Companians" (Courtesy Concord Records)
Katherine Cole
While Jerry Garcia is best known for his work with the legendary Grateful Dead, he also spent a lot of time on side projects. Most notable among them were probably The Jerry Garcia Band, Old and In The Way and his collaborations with bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman. But Garcia also played for many years in various groups with jazz keyboardist Merl Saunders.

"Keystone Companions" is a recently released four-CD boxed set recorded during the musicians' two-night stand at Berkeley, California’s Keystone Club in July of 1973.

With Garcia on guitar and Saunders on keyboard, the two began picking together on a regular basis in 1970. It started as a weekly jam session at a small club in San Francisco. While he may not be as much of a “household name” as Garcia, Saunders was a successful session player and bandleader, having played with artists including Dinah Washington and Miles Davis.

Soon after they started their casual shows together, the Saunders-Garcia band was playing to packed houses in small local clubs every weekend when the Dead wasn’t touring. 

'Keystone Companions' Highlights Merl Saunders-Jerry Garcia Collaboration
'Keystone Companions' Highlights Merl Saunders-Jerry Garcia Collaborationi
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The music on "Keystone Companians"' four discs is exactly what you’d expect from a Jerry Garcia side project: a mix of rock, blues and jazz with some bluegrass and soul mixed in. And, as with any jam session, the songs sometimes wander and might even include all those styles of music within the same tune. 

Many of the tracks have been released on various albums over the years, but this new collection includes new liner notes, a poster and a 28-page photo book, along with seven previously unreleased songs. Among them: a take on the pop classic “How Sweet It Is.”

“Keystone Companions” is a fan’s dream come true - it contains two complete sets equaling almost four hours of live music. The tracks were remastered to crystal clarity and among the selections include two Bob Dylan covers, Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” and a couple of originals including “Keepers,” an instrumental written by Merl Saunders and the band's bass player, John Kahn.

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