Merl Saunders | 10.02.2001 | BB King’s Club | NYC
Nestled in between the salsa-jive of California’s B-Side Players and Jah Strength of Kingston’s Roots Radics Israel Vibrations, Merl Saunders tickled a soulful set of blues, jazz, and a couple Head favorites for the faithful at BB King’s. A surprise for most expecting some olde time cuts like “Welcome to the Basement” and “Dynamite;” Merl took the stage with accompaniment from soprano sax soulster Adam Vasquez and B-Side conga man Victor EL OSO Tapia. Getting down and dirty with some real blues, Merl and friends brought their own essence to a place that is severely lacking in blues element.
Taking the stage to a few hoots and hollers Merl got right into it, hands at work with a little free jazz number featuring the amazing work of Vasquez who on thin night soloed from 9:15 until about 10 o’clock. It took a few bars for Tapia to get a feel, but when Merl gave him the light, he fell with ease into a nice conga breakdown bringing that spiritually illuminating smile to Merl’s face. The second tune we were told by the man, was inspired by the TV show “Simon and Simon” which as far as I know was a little before my time (I’m going to have to inquire with my parents on this one). Don Johnson, who had a brief and terrifying singing career, was also interested in this song for his show Nash Bridges. Check out Merl rubbing elbows with Hollywood. Merl belted out the blues on this number, “Pay my dues. Do what I choose. I got a right to sing the blues.” Once again, the power of Vasquez tore through this one as his soloing got heads shaking all about the red velvet room.
Merl introduced the next song by saying, “I used to know fellas who played this song” and the band dropped a tight salsa “Fire on the Mountain.” The trio was really feeling it and another conga break had Merl all giddy. His solo during “Fire” even had the soprano man Vasquez rocking in disbelief at the man’s nimble hands. Another traditional blues number followed, full of soul and energy. Next, Merl dedicated a lovely Horace Silver tune to an old army buddy of his in the house. Tapia complimented exquisitely and Vasquez wailed as Merl’s tickling was once again the picture of pure heart and soul. A special guest vocalist and professional turkey-smuggler Miss Carla Page accompanied the band for a ripping rendition of “CC Rider.” Merl met Miss Page at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia where she just hopped on stage, grabbing the mic to tell all what the blues is really about and she taught us all the same lesson. I asked for a little “Sugaree” and got it for the grand finale. Always a treat to hear the growling voice belt out a little Jerry, honoring the man we all miss so much. Merl’s face lights up the room, pure joy emanating from his heart speaking the words of his best friend, a perfect conclusion to a marvelous set of music.
We managed to get one last wave good-bye from the man as he pulled away from 42nd Street Babylonia in the red Lexus with Jersey plates. Merl was blues this night. He exemplified heart and soul in music, qualities absent from the venue falsely titled Blues Club. Can you be hurting inside with $10 minimum per person, per set table fee?
Merl transcended the negative and brought the music back to the roots in a time where we need to focus on such things, letting the song speak for itself. Merl, we thank you for keeping the spirit alive.
JamBase | New York
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