Ghosts of Merced (A Four-Part Suite), by keyboardist and composer R Scott, is a musical love letter to his roots in the San Joaquin Valley and the vastness that is central California. It represents a much-traveled road from his birthplace of Merced, the gateway to the wondrous beauty of Yosemite, to the sprawling, dystopian allure of Los Angeles. Produced by Chris Schlarb and recorded at Big Ego Studio in Long Beach, California, Ghosts of Merced was created over six days during the winter chill of 2019 with an 11-piece ensemble including a drums/percussion duo, brass, piano/keyboards, string trio, vibes/marimba, woodwinds to create a wide and dynamic sonic palette.
This is an album about arrivals and departures - spiritual and physical. It’s about how environments shape us, how we leave them and how their influence continues to shape us. And it’s a very personal record about a mother and father R Scott never knew. Invoking locations as characters and symbols of a life-long journey, Scott’s first foray into extended composition for large ensemble is more than a meditation on memory – it’s a release from a strange sense of displacement that haunted him for years.
The first movement of this four-part suite, “Merced (Ahwahnee, Gateway, Mercy)” represents a child in the womb. “Ahwahnee” is the energy and chaos that is birth represented by the drums. “Gateway” is life and the beauty of a newborn wail via the full ensemble. “Mercy” is sacrifice of a mother giving up her child in order to protect it.
Next, “El Capitan (The Chief, Sea of Dreams)” is about growth and taking charge of life in the face of obstacles. “The Chief” is the spirit that guides us through, speaking here through a lone piano. “Sea of Dreams” is the vision and plateau in a journey to find one’s own voice, scaling the mountain and standing at its edge. The string trio here reflects the raw emotion of struggle and triumph.
“San Joaquin (Ash Tree, Central Pacific)” is the worldly, mad ride toward personal enlightenment. “Ash Tree” represents the ashes of memories left behind, and nods to the trees which populate the Central Valley. Central Pacific is the runaway train to a new destination. The accelerated tempo and kinetic energy of the full ensemble cascade in and out of the motifs and crash into the finale.
Inspired by a return trip to Los Angeles during a surreal firestorm, the suite’s finale “Ghosts Of Merced (Ring of Fire, City of Angels, Ghosts)” represents the entrance to a dystopian city of dreams. The piano and Moog synthesizer opening of “Ring of Fire” is isolation and the hope to find a home, while the distant drums and plodding bass invoke the slow, uncertain journey into a strange new place. The brass, winds and organ during “City of Angels” paint a fiery picture of trying to survive with spirit and voice intact. “Ghosts” is a reflection on all the elements laid before it. Finally, “The Chief” speaks again through a lone piano.
We all have stories of the road - real and/or imagined: pre-dawn starts, sun and moon skies, dark highways, headlight spirit guides, drive all night madness, mysterious wide open expanses and the need to feel “at home”, wherever that ends up being.