Yet Another Sunny, Enjoyable Ernest Ranglin Album
Bassist Yossi Fine asserts that Ernest Ranglin is the world’s greatest living guitarist. And why not? Ranglin might not have singlehandedly invented reggae, but he was there in the studio the day that Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibb came up with the one-drop. And he most certainly invented reggae jazz. Since then, Jamaica’s preeminent guitarist has made a career out of many other first-ever moments (including Bob Marley’s first studio session). One function of always seeming to pop up at the right place is that Ranglin is always on the road, the consummate live musician. As a result, much of his solo catalog has been recorded on the fly (and sounds that way, for better or for worse), as is the case with his new album Avila, recorded to dovetail with a one-off California reggae festival gig. It’s a throwback to Ranglin’s late 70s instrumental sessions as bandleader: backing the guitarist, and pretty much staying chill and out of the way, are Fine, plus the Mickey Hart Band’s Ian Inx Herman on drums, Jonathan Korty on piano and keyboards plus trumpeter Ryan Scott and saxophonist Alex Baky of the Monophonics.
It’s hard to believe that Ranglin will turn eighty this year, considering how fast and precise his fingers are on the fretboard after all these years. This is a particularly joyous session, a mix of originals plus inspired takes of compositions brought in by individual band members. Bookending those songs are a pulsing versions of Abdullah Ibrahim’s Manenberg and Return to Manenberg, full of good-natured call-and-response between Korty’s piano and Ranglin’s playful, bouncy pointillisms. Ranglin’s rhythmically tricky Memories of Senegal works a circular West African riff on the bass, the guitar’s modal waves strikingly evocative of Jerry Garcia at the top of his game during the 80s. Ernossi, a reggae jazz homage by Fine, gradually grows from an easygoing, funky organ-fueled sway as Ranglin adds an insistent staccato bite alternating with gently ascending runs. Ranglin’s own Ska Rango also follows a carefree arc up, down and back again, from ringing, sustained chords to a casually swing lit up with the occasional slithery filigree, quicksilver descending run, or the fluttering, rapidfire flourishes that have come to define Ranglin’s work as a jazz musician.
The unexpectedly wary Uncle Funky, by Korty contrasts pensive Wes Montgomeryisms, voodoo staccato and watery Leslie speaker tonalities over an echoey Rhodes piano groove. The other Ranglin composition here, Swaziland, kicks off with an insistent minor-key horn chorus that the guitarist follows with a characteristically expansive, thoughful solo, big bright chords mingling with biting single-note phrases. The album’s title track, by producer Tony Mindel brings back the mellowness, Ranglin once again reaching into his bottomless bag of island jazz riffs, warmly and judiciously. This isn’t heavy, intense music by a long shot: it’s a good-time collection of smart grooves and terse playing, a perfect soundtrack for the end of summer. It’s a worthwhile addition alongside the literally hundreds of good albums that Ranglin has played on.
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