Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Gilzene & the Blue Light Mento Band – Sweet Sweet Jamaica

Two words: YEAH MON! This new cd does double duty as valuable cultural artifact and strangely delightful party album. With acoustic guitar, a primitive “rhumba box” for a bass and an impressively energetic octogenarian banjo player, Gilzene & the Blue Light Mento Band play what Jamaicans were playing and dancing to before calypso, decades before reggae. Mento is sort of like Jamaican bluegrass, with similar chord changes but a different rhythm. It’s not reggae, but as this album goes on you can hear several elements that survived the transformation: for example, the way the percussion rolls when the song reaches a turnaround, and the guitar accent on the downbeat. Sung in old-fashioned Jamaican patwa, the lyrics reflect an earlier era, sometimes sly, sometimes silly, laden with puns and innuendo. Authenticity these days may be a dubious concept, but this album has an strikingly roughhewn, rustic vibe. The ramshackle quality of the performances, the dodgy harmonies and the slightly out-of-tune instruments only enhance the vintage feel. Although mento is an indelible part of Jamaican culture – island jazz still abounds with mento themes and references – it’s been a long time since it was in style. So this album is overdue, and particularly welcome for preserving these songs pretty much the way they were played seventy and eighty years ago.

The group kicks it off with a stripped-down, acoustic version of Crying, an international hit for Katie Kissoon in the 70s. The second track has a rousing, careening bluegrass feel with bracing, sometimes abrupt banjo accents. Gungu Walk, which follows, is a playful narrative told from the point of view of a peeping tom. The work song Hill & Gully is a long (some might say interminable) call-and-response vamp with a vintage Cuban feel – being an island nation, Jamaica has long been a melting pot for a stupefyingly large variety of styles. Ole Im Joe (Hold Him, Joe) is similarly rousing, in this case the metaphorically loaded tale of a donkey who can’t get enough to drink, alcoholic or otherwise. And Wata Yu Garden needs no explanation. The last of the fifteen tracks is a somewhat breakneck, out-of-tune version of the Toots & the Maytals classic Sweet & Dandy with vocals by Toots himself.

The backstory here is classically Jamaican. Gilzene has two other incarnations, one as Culture George, a reggae artist whose orthodox Rasta roots album was produced by the Twinkle Brothers’ Norman Grant back in the 70s, and the other as a gospel singer. Backup singer/percussionist Donnett Leslie moonlights as the keyboardist in his reggae band.

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January 29, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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