Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

August 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews, ska music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/17/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album was #531:

Monty Alexander – Yard Movement

What the Jamaican pianist did on this 1995 live release was pretty radical at the time, but when you think about it, all he did was basically bring reggae full circle. Consider: reggae comes from rocksteady, rocksteady from ska, ska from calypso and calypso from jazz. Alexander has been a lyrical, exuberant player for decades, and immersed in the style even if he didn’t start out playing it, so it was a natural progression for him. His equally ecstatic band here includes reggae guitar icon Ernest Ranglin (a jazzcat himself – see #903 on this list). They kick it off by winding their way up slowly and deliberately into a twelve-plus minute version of Bob Marley’s Exodus, hitting the same hypnotic groove as the original but with cascading, incisive leads by the piano instead of the guitar. The rest of the album is all Alexander originals: the more stern Regulator; the blissful ballads Crying, Love Notes and Moonlight City, his popular tribute to his favorite Jamdown spot, Strawberry Hill, and the hot closing jam, Sneaky Steppers. Pretty much everything Alexander has ever done is worth a spin, including his latest, Harlem-Kingston Express live record. This one is streaming in its entirety at grooveshark; here’s a random torrent via Ras Cope.

August 18, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert, reggae music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monty Alexander’s New Live Album: Yeah Mon!

In case you haven’t heard, Monty Alexander has a new live album out. More elegant and urbane but no less fun than his ecstatic, paradigm-shaping reggae-jazz albums like 1995’s Yard Movement and 2004’s Rocksteady, this new one, Harlem-Kingston Express Live, is a vivid reminder why artists as diverse as Tony Bennett and Ernest Ranglin have sought him out as a collaborator. Shifting effortlessly between bustling swing and a deep roots reggae groove, the iconic Jamaican jazz pianist is backed by two different bands – a roots reggae unit, as well as a jazz trio with rhythm section and guitar. Recorded both at Dizzy’s Club at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as on tour over the previous few years, the production is remarkably fat for a live performance, particularly perfect for the reggae numbers. For the straight-up jazz tunes, the group here includes Hassan Shakur on bass, Obed Calvaire on drums and Yotam Silberstein on guitar, while the electric reggae unit typically features Andy Bassford on guitar, Hoova Simpson on bass guitar, Karl Wright on drums and Robert Thomas on percussion. Sometimes, though, Alexander flips the script, allowing each group to explore their counterparts’ territory, with surprising and rewarding results.

Strawberry Hill, one of Alexander’s most popular hybrid compositions, is done tersely and not a little suspensefully, big block chords laying the foundation for some tiptoeing lyrical excursions. By contrast, the version of High Heel Sneakers fades up jauntily, Alexander literally leading a charge, leaving the boogie bass to the rhythm section as he gets the piano humming with overtones before diving back into the blues. King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown leaps from the classic drum-n-bass vamp to a sprint, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing after all…and then they’re right back where they started.

Eleuthera, another Alexander signature song, gets a laid-back but lively reggae bounce. They pick up the pace with a lickety-split, surprisingly lighthearted romp through Sweet Georgia Brown, Silberstein taking over where Alexander leaves off, while Freddie Freeloader gets a tongue-in-cheek disco groove. But the gravitas of the solo piano intro to Milt Jackson’s Compassion doesn’t dissipate even as the slinky reggae riddim comes in (that’s Bernard Montgomery on melodica, in case you’re wondering how Alexander can play two keyboards at once).

There are three Bob Marley tunes here, and they’re the real showstoppers. The Heathen reminds why Alexander is equally admired in the jazz and jamband worlds, as it constantly changes shape from brightly lyrical reggae, to a bustling bop interlude…with a little melodica, and stark bowed bas when least expected. Running Away winds in casually but matter-of-factly, Alexander keeping it pointed and biting just like the original. They swing out of it with a silvery Silberstein solo, Alexander firing off a big chromatically-charged climb to take it out on a high note. No Woman No Cry is quite a bit faster than the original, quickly becoming a launching pad for some typically wry Alexander allusions that the band picks up on – his wit’s in rare form, and the fun is contagious. Another album, another victory for Commander Zander. It’s out now on Motéma.

August 12, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/10/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #903:

Ernest Ranglin – Wranglin’

The preeminent Jamaican guitarist, Ernest Ranglin had led probably hundreds if not thousands of calypso and ska sessions by the time he recorded this album, only the second where he’d been credited as a bandleader. The original 1964 Island Records lp did not sell well and has been out of print for decades, but is happily still available as a bootleg, if a somewhat dodgy sounding one. Ranglin’s career began almost fifty years, during the age of calypso yard sessions (and the birth of what would become hip-hop twenty-five years later). He was probably in the studio, maybe playing, when Lloyd Knibb of the Skatalites invented the one-drop, which would transform ska into rocksteady and then into reggae. Ranglin served as Jimmy Cliff’s musical director throughout his 70s heyday, then mined a frequently transcendent reggae-jazz collaboration with pianist Monty Alexander in the 80s and 90s. Now almost eighty, he retains the vigor and vitality of a player fifty years younger. This album shows how developed his jazzy, Les Paul-influenced style had become by the early sixties, replete with whispery, lightning-fast filigrees that switch in a split-second into frenetic tremolo chords and then back again. Here he sticks with a straight-up 4/4 beat, taking British bassist Malcolm Cecil and drummer Alan Ganley into the Caribbean sun for a characteristically warm, expansive jaunt through a mix of originals and old mento standards like Linstead Market and Angelina. You can download it here.

August 10, 2010 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yard Party Uptown, Mon: Ernest Ranglin and Others in Concert in NYC 2/26/09

The party vibe was strong at this one-off concert put together by Jamaican historian Herbie Miller for Harlem Stage at Aaron Davis Hall. It was an oldschool massive, and it was as if everybody pretty much knew everybody else, friends of the seven musicians shouting out to their countrymen and getting a shout back from the stage. A strong case could be made for the contention that for the past several decades, no other country has had more talented musicians per square mile than little Jamaica, and this casual yet dazzling display of three generations of island jazz talent only bolstered that argument. Serving as bandleader was iconic, ageless guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who in his six-decade career has played with just about every legendary Jamaican musician in calypso, jazz, ska and reggae. Former Sun Ra sideman Cedric “Im” Brooks and Douglas Ewart on sax joined in representing the older generation, with pianist Orville Hammond and longtime Gil Scott-Heron percussionist Larry McDonald filling in the middle and a young-gun rhythm section of Wayne Batchelor on bass and frequent Jimmy Cliff and Monty Alexander sideman Desmond Jones on drums. Running through a set heavily stacked with old mento standards, the group were loose and conversational but buckled down when they had to, with often exhilarating results.

 

Jazz from Jamaica tends to be especially melodically oriented, and tonight it was Hammond holding it down with the rhythm section pushing along on the basic, soul- or blues-based changes. Often Brooks would ham it up, opening the set with an amusing if ill-advised turn on vocals, serving as a foil to Ranglin’s counterintuitive sophistication. Now 76, Ranglin has never played better: given a chance to take center stage, he chose his spots and then wailed through some strikingly intense, even piercing solos, generally eschewing the fluttery Les Paul-inflected chordal style that’s been his trademark for so long. Hammond had fewer chances to cut loose, but made the best of them, bringing a masterfully eerie noir lounge touch to the few minor-key songs in the set. Brooks and Ewart were remarkably similar, each showing off a soulful, slowly crescendoing, thoughtful style that gave their cohorts ample opportunity to contribute or, in the case of Ranglin, echo and bend a phrase into a completely unexpected shape.

 

At their most boisterous, Jones would get out from behind his kit and pummel a big bass drum, McDonald coming over from his congas, joined by both Ewart and Brooks, creating a free-for-all that would eventually drown out the rest of the band. There were also a couple of perhaps expected, perhaps surprise special guests, namely a couple of older gentlemen who took the stage in front of the band and got the crowd roaring with their impressively agile dance moves while the security guards looked on bemusedly from the edge of the stage. Before the encore, Miller explained to the crowd that they had been ripping up the yard since way back in the day. And then the less frenetic of the two grabbed the mic and indulged in a long exhortation to the Rastas in the crowd, ending with a fervent suggestion to read Isaiah, Chapter 43 (a passage which doesn’t make much sense other than to say that God will mess with you if you don’t behave). And nobody stopped him or shut off the mic: no problem, mon. For about an hour and a half, it was like being in Montego Bay – or Ogetnom, as one of the night’s most beautifully haunting numbers was playfully titled. 

February 28, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pamela Fleming & Fearless Dreamer at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, NYC 9/18/07

Two long, exhilarating sets of jazz from the highly sought-after horn player/bandleader and her seemingly favorite cast of characters. Pam Fleming has played with everybody. She spent a few years in reggae legend Burning Spear’s band as one of the all-female trio the Burning Brass, toured with Natalie Merchant and has lately been the not-so-secret weapon in Hazmat Modine. Her trademark is the instant crescendo. Whether playing trumpet or flugelhorn, she can pull one out of thin air in a split-second and make it seem perfectly natural, a trick that only a few musicians (Robert Cray and Mary Lee Kortes come to mind) can pull off. As breathtaking a soloist as she is, it’s ironic that in her own band, she doesn’t get to do that much. Most of her compositions seem to be written through, in other words, meant to be played note for note without much if any opportunity for soloing or extemporization.

Fleming typically writes in three disparate styles: vividly evocative, richly melodic songs without words; long, sprawling, psychedelic one-chord jams that sound like early 70s gangster movie soundtracks, and jazzed-up reggae tunes that wouldn’t be out of place in the Monty Alexander songbook (imagine if Alexander was a horn player instead of a pianist). Many of the compositions she played tonight had a narrative, cinematic feel: Hollywood would do well to seek her out.

Tonight she had almost all of the unit from her latest album: the always surprising, brilliantly musical Todd Isler on drums and percussion, the fast, stylistically diverse Peter Calo on electric guitar, Leo Traversa holding down the bass, Jim West on keys, and new group member Erik Lawrence on tenor and alto sax and flute. They opened with the reggae tune Slimy Business (guess which business that is), Fleming and Lawrence conversing through their instruments and trading off on sections of the melody, a sonically textural treat. They followed that with the gorgeous, major-key Because of Anthony from their first album. The brand-new, defiant, bluesy I’ve Had Enough gave both Fleming and Lawrence their first chance to stretch out. The haunting, achingly beautiful More Than Anything began with West playing the song’s central hook and built from there; from what Fleming told the audience, it seems to be a love song, but it’s very, very dark: West’s tasteful, traditional approach to his part worked wonders. After that, they did Intrigue in the Night Market, a rousing gypsy dance she wrote for Metropolitan Klezmer (another band she plays in regularly), featuring a boisterous, imaginative hand drum solo from Isler.

The highlight of the first set was Say Goodbye, which actually isn’t nearly as mournful as the title might imply: it’s a comfortable, familiar-sounding theme (perhaps this is a personal interpretation: maybe I’m so used to saying goodbye that it feels comfortably familiar). With its nostalgic, homey central hook, it sounds like it ought to be playing over the opening credits of a popular tv drama (any HBO people out there?).

The evening’s most mesmerizing piece was Fleming’s ominous 9/11 theme, Climb, the title track from her most recent album. From the song’s tersely harrowing opening hook, it’s obvious what’s going to happen, yet the foreshadowing is white-knuckle intense, right up to inevitable crash – and the band missed the crescendo when they hit it. To their credit, they turned on a dime and then brought out every bit of the macabre, disastrous feel of the following succession of chords as the song literally fell apart. Live, watching the melody break down and disintegrate was absolutely riveting. It’s a credit to this band that they can absolutely nail Fleming’s sometimes completely unexpected thematic and mood changes.

The night finally came to a close with Ba-Bo-De, a world-music inflected, two-chord vamp that unsurprisingly evoked a Burning Spear jam, which Fleming opened by playing a conch shell for a few bars. Fleming had had a devious look on her face the entire night, and took this as her opportunity to finally leave the stage and circulate amongst the audience, getting seemingly everyone to sing part of the melody. The crowd loved the personal attention, and the band jumped on the opportunity to get mischievous while she was out mingling with the audience.

This show was part of an ongoing series here called Women Take the Bandstand, featuring a new female-fronted act on the third Tuesday of every month. Given the venue, it seems to be mostly jazz and world music. Kudos to the reliably friendly, sonically superb Nuyorican for creating the series: it’s an admirable concept.

September 20, 2007 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments