To anyone who’s studied Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, their connection to jazz was unmistakable: From their own onstage improvising to collaborations with Branford Marsalis and Ornette Coleman, the Dead clearly saw jazz musicians as simpatico. But how far back did those bonds go? An upcoming, previously unreleased live set — GarciaLive Vol. 15: Jerry Garcia & Merl Saunders, May 21st, 1971 — provides a few more clues.
Even in the early days of the Grateful Dead, Garcia somehow found the time to engage in a plethora of side projects, one of which was an ongoing live collaboration with keyboardist and singer Merl Saunders. Starting in 1970, the two began playing regularly at the San Francisco clubs the Matrix and Keystone Korner. In that looser atmosphere, where he was accompanied by Saunders and usually bassist John Kahn and drummer Bill Vitt, Garcia was able to loosen up, tackle outside material he loved, and ease away from the building pressure of being the Dead’s frontman. Also joining in from time to time were Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann and former Creedence Clearwater Revival rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty.
One night at Keystone Korner in the spring of 1971, Garcia, Saunders, and Vitt were joined by saxophonist Martin Fierro, who’d moved to the Bay Area a few years before and had played with the Sir Douglas Quintet and Tracy Nelson’s Mother Earth band; a few years later, he would also guest on the Dead’s Wake of the Flood. He was also part of Hooteroll?, Garcia’s album with keyboardist Howard Wales.
Around this time, David Crosby had written “The Wall Song,” which churned with his usual discombobulated-world thoughts and sported one of his most arresting, least laid-back melodies. Starting at least in late 1970, Garcia and Crosby had played it together onstage in their own offshoot band, David and the Dorks. That night at Keystone Korner, Garcia took a shot at the tune himself — supposedly the only time he ever played it onstage without Crosby.
For some reason, Kahn was unable to make this particular Keystone gig, which means Garcia was playing in a guitar-drums-organ lineup that was downright Doors-like in its configuration. At the start, Garcia, Saunders, and Vitt play “The Wall Song” as a brooding shuffle — the dark side of the cocktail lounge.
But when Fierro enters, the sax man takes over, pushing the song into very different and very improvisatory territory. Revealing his roots in jazz bands in his native Texas, Fierro blows R&B lines that adhere to the melody, but not for long. Soon enough he’s freestyling over “The Wall Song,” squawking and squeezing notes out of his horn and turning it into something close to freeform jazz. (Interestingly, Miles Davis did the same with Crosby’s “Guinnevere” around the same time.) Fierro would continue to play with Garcia and Saunders during the next few years, including in their band Legion of Mary, but his appearance on “The Wall Song” fully demonstrates what he could bring to the guitarist’s musical camp.
With backing by Garcia, Kreutzmann, and Phil Lesh, a studio version of “The Wall Song” would finally appear on record a year later, on the Graham Nash/David Crosby album released in the wake of CSNY’s breakup. That version was trimmed down from a long studio jam — and one can’t help but wonder if the Garcia and Saunders version heard here inspired the longer rendition laid down in the studio that night.
“The Wall Song” will be included on the newly unearthed GarciaLive Vol. 15, set for December 4th release and available now for preorder. The album also includes Garcia singing Robbie Robertson’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and an instrumental vamp on Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her.”