Of Mentors and Modes

Mike Lawson • Perspective • January 8, 2018

It’s a new year, with new plans, new goals, and all the mice and men one can muster in planning those things.

As a lifelong musician, I have some musical plans and goals for the year. For many years, I have performed a tribute to the late Jerry Garcia and his mentor and mine, Merl Saunders. Merl was one of the finest Hammond Organ players and pianists I have ever heard, let alone worked with. He is known among the legion of Jerry Garcia fans as the man who took Jerry into the world of “real music.” He taught Garcia to play jazz standards, taught him theory, phrasing and musicality on a scale that completely changed the trajectory of his career. Between the years of 1996 and 2001, Merl Saunders did the same for me.

But it seems as though most of my life, I have been far too busy actually performing to spend much-needed time learning, re-learning, or just plain practicing. And I need to do so.

Just because I am already getting paid well doesn’t mean I don’t need to improve. I need to revisit my scales, my inversions, my chording, and try to expand my musical vocabulary so that my improvisational playing takes the music further “out there” during the shows I do with my band.

I was blessed to have performed dozens of times with him as a member of “His Funky Friends,” as well as opening for his Merl Saunders and the Rainforest Band performances. Merl and I had many intense musical discussions during those years, often over some Unagi at the sushi restaurant near his home in the San Francisco Sunset District. He gave me a lot to think about, and even more homework. And when Merl gave me homework, I did it. I did it out of respect. I did it because I wanted to be a better musician and earn my place on his stage. This was the man who not only turned Jerry Garcia into a “real musician” outside of his world of psychedelic rock and folk/bluegrass/blues music, but the man who gave Johnny Mathis his first job as a vocalist when he was just a kid living in Merl’s neighborhood. He told me what scales and modes I should focus on for a particular song. Sometimes he would play it for me on an old square grand piano in his home that a fan had given him, that wasn’t in the best of repair, but would suffice for him to explain my quick lesson. I soaked it up like a sponge.

Through all of the years I was lucky enough to get to know Merl, and even luckier to be on his stage, we almost never had a band rehearsal for a gig. The only time I recall us getting together for a rehearsal was when renowned bassist Rob Wasserman was to play with the annual ad hoc Funky Friends lineup at the Haight Street Fair, and Rob insisted we get together to go over what we were going to perform. Even that was a quick jam a couple of hours before the show in Merl’s garage. It wasn’t a “proper” rehearsal. Merl once said to me, “Mike, you rehearse at home. You show up to my gigs ready to play.”

Long, improvisational jams are more complicated than the handful of chords they often happen over, and it takes more skill to pull that off than one might think. Keeping it interesting and not repetitive or gratuitous is something always on my mind when I’m playing in tribute to the performances of Merl and Jerry’s storied “Keystone” era. A 20-minute instrumental jam of “My Funny Valentine” or “Georgia on My Mind” with pretty much everyone taking multiple solos is not only a joy to perform, when it is done right, it produces an inner joy that is hard to even describe. So, this year, my resolution is to rehearse my scales, inversions, and solos at home, and show up at my shows paying tribute to Merl (and Jerry, since I sit in the Garcia seat), ready to play on his stage.

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