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Blues from the Rainforest: A Musical Suite ()

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Unlike the packaging might lead one to presume, Blues From the Rainforest: A Musical Suite (1990) is primarily an environmentally themed mixture of smooth jazz and thematic world music from Merl Saunders featuring contributions from Jerry Garcia on four of the disc's six tracks. Those holding out for a return to the pair's R&B-laced funk fusion might be somewhat dismayed at the multi-layered synthetic keyboard beds and MIDI overkill -- which may have been state of the art in the late '80s, but just come off sounding dated to the more modern and discerning listener. The 15-plus-minute title track is an instrumental suite highlighted by Garcia's unmistakably emotive lead guitar lines. His solos range from dark and brooding to hopeful and buoyant throughout the suite's various sonic moods and themes. Although arguably somewhat limited, they provide an earthy balance to the heavily processed and unnatural-sounding effects that otherwise clutter the soundscape. The achingly lyrical "Sunrise Over Haleakala" features what is basically an unplugged duet between Saunders -- whose Kurzweil 100 PX acoustic piano module still ends up sounding hopelessly synthetic -- and Garcia on an actual acoustic guitar. The interaction between the two is initially hesitant, with the guitarist solemnly strumming behind somewhat strident layers of keyboard padding. After some questionable intonations, Garcia hones in on an incisive counterpoint to compliment the open and expressive melody. Of the remaining cuts, "Blue Hill Ocean Dance" and "Afro Pearl Blue" garner particular praise for Garcia's slinky leads. Courtesy of MIDI synthesizer technology, his guitar is programmed to replicate variations of sounds ranging from pan flutes to chimes. Both the spry "Dance of the Fireflies" and the ominously Eastern-flavored "Sri Lanka" continue the world music motif with slightly looser arrangements and considerable contributions from Muruga (tabla/drums) and Eddie Moore (Indian ektar/congas/drums/bells). Overall, Blues From the Rainforest: A Musical Suite is more highly recommended for enthusiasts of neo-jazz and world music than the funky and soulful R&B that defined the former coupling of Merl Saundersand Jerry Garcia. ~ Lindsay Planer, Rovi Hide synopsis

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