Jamaican musician, producer and studio owner Byron Lee is sometimes overlooked in the history of reggae. He had a middle class background and the sounds coming from him and his band The Dragonaries were often labelled as uptown and custom-made for tourists. Maybe his music was uptown, but in retrospect many Byron Lee’s productions often sounds as authentic as many other cuts recorded in the 60s.
This is shown on a new 20 track compilation appropriately titled Uptown Top Ranking. It collects classics and golden nuggets as well as several overlooked gems. The set is mostly instrumental and Byron Lee & The Dragonaires gives several classics cuts from the 60s and 70s the ska, rocksteady and reggae treatment, including Manu Dibango’s funky disco monster Soul Makossa, Herbie Hancock’s jazz standard Watermelon Man and the immortal Ol’ Man River.
There are plenty of dance floor fillers and the tempo is high – some might argue it’s frenetic – almost throughout the full album, but there are a few slower, organ-lead jams collected as well.
Byron Lee has been a pivotal figure in reggae and played a crucial part in expanding music from Jamaica beyond the Caribbean. He was part of taking ska to the U.S. and his studio Dynamic Sounds became a major hub for both local talents and major international acts like Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. And Uptown Top Ranking spotlights an entertainer and an entrepreneur that pioneered the Jamaican music industry.
On Phoenix City All-Stars‘ debut album Two Tone Gone Ska they did blazing ska versions of material by The Specials, The Selecter, The Beat and Madness. Now they have another cover album out, but this time they have taken on a giant of rock music – Rolling Stones.
Phoenix City All-Stars are far from newcomers and they know their ska and their Rolling Stones. The band comprises members of Pama International, The Sidewalk Doctors, Kasabian, Intensified, Dub Vendor All-Stars, The Loafers, Big Boss Man, The Bongolian and The Delegators. On vocals they are also supported by the deejay Oxman and the singer Freddie Notes, known for the smooth Montego Bay released in 1970.
Skatisfaction collects ten tracks, including hits and lesser known tracks from the mighty Rolling Stones vaults. Phoenix City All-Stars have treated them with respect and revitalized them in scorching ska and rocksteady versions.
And these frantic and storming cuts hold up well against the popular originals, especially the instrumental cut to Under My Thumb, where a haunting organ provides the original vocal line, and the honeyed Sweet Virgina, also an instrumental, and with a smooth saxophone replacing the singing.
This album has loads of raw attitude and collects driving ska and killer early reggae. Rolling Stones should be satisfied with such a well-crafted tribute set.
UK-based singer Alpheus teamed up with renowned Spanish producer Roberto Sánchez about four years ago and in 2011 the acclaimed album From Creation was released. It was a step in a new and different direction for both Alpheus and Roberto Sánchez.
From Creation was not the usual European one drop or hard Channel One roots reggae. It was something completely different – soulful rocksteady and swinging ska.
Now this duo has a new album – Good Prevails. It collects 14 tracks, of which two are melodica instrumentals. It also offers a mix of fresh originals and re-vitalized versions of riddims created by Coxsone Dodd, Phil Pratt and Winston Riley.
Good Prevails hits the streets on LP and CD on April 28. If you can’t wait to hear how it sounds, check Our Strength taken from the album.
Wouter Rosseel – guitarist in Lee Perry-influenced Belgian reggae band Pura Vida – has another project, a project with hardly any Lee Perry influences. The members of Jamaican Jazz Orchestra are instead worshipping The Skatalites and the early sounds of Jamaica led by Don Drummond, Ernest Ranglin, Tommy McCook and others.
And this ten piece band has recently dropped a self-titled six track EP free for download over at Soundcloud.
When listening to it my foot starts tapping and my head starts nodding reflexively. They have a tasteful mix of reggae and ska rhythms spiced with a jazzy brass section and a groove-oriented organ player.
It’s loose, funky and fun and well-worth checking out, even though I could have made it without the rapping on G13.
Reissue giants SoulJazz Records have once again opened the mighty Studio One music vaults. This time for a second ska compilation.
The first compilation – put out in 2004 – was titled Studio One Ska and featured classic vocal and instrumental tracks from The Skatalites, Bob Marley and The Wailers, Delroy Wilson alongside rare tracks from the likes of Ken Boothe and The Maytals.
Studio One Ska Fever! is a slightly different affair. It still features a mix of vocal cuts and instrumentals, but it collects less classic tracks and a heavier dose of obscurities, for example gems like Jackie Opel’s Old Rocking Chair and the Soul Brothers’ take on The Skatalites’ classic Freedom Sounds.
The tempo and the quality of the songs are of course high throughout the 18 tracks recorded between 1964 and 1967. It’s upbeat and joyous, just listen to the Bob Marley lead Climb the Ladder with its gospel-tinged chorus or The Clarendonians’ Rudie Bam Bam with honking horns and memorable piano. But it is also funky, as in Jackie Mittoo’s organ instrumental Jump For Joy, recorded when he hadn’t turned 20 yet.
Ska Fever! comes with a 24 page booklet containing extensive sleeve-notes from Studio One historian Rob Chapman, with information on musicians, tracks, label scans and more.
This is yet another strong release from SoulJazz and Studio One and it shows the sheer brilliance of the elite musicians that were The Skatalites. For a period of about two years their sounds ruled Jamaica and Ska Fever! shows why.
Saxophonist Lee Thompson and bass player Mark Bedford, two founding members of Madness, have a new band together – The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra. The project started out a few years ago with a few gigs and it worked out so well that the band decided to record an album together with the always reliable vintage-sounding producer Mike Pelanconi aka Prince Fatty.
This twelve track ska and reggae album collects only covers and mixes instrumentals with vocal versions. Its title – The Benevolence Of Sister Mary Ignatius – is a nod and a tribute to Sister Mary Ignatius, who played a vital role in the development of ska and reggae as head of the Alpha Boys’ School in Kingston, Jamaica, in the early 60s.
The album is rocking and swinging and includes covers of immortal tunes by John Holt (Ali Baba) and Don Drummond (Eastern Standard Time) alongside ska versions of Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible theme, Allman Brothers’ Midnight Rider and Fats Domino’s Hello Josephine. The standout tune is however Desmond Dekker’s Fu Man Chu with guest vocalist Bitty McLean.
This is old school ska at its best. Prepare yourself for some good time stomping – knees up, arms rocking sideways and a huge smile on your face.
French nine piece band Jim Murple Memorial has been together in various constellations for 17 years and has recently released their ninth official studio album Take Your Flight, Jim!, collecting 16 tracks aimed a starting any party around the globe.
Their sound is a melting pot of ska, rocksteady, calypso, boogaloo and Jamaican and American R&B. They’ve might have listened to an equal amount of Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Willie Colón, The Skatalites, Slim Smith and Laurel Aitken.
It’s fun, passionate and soulful and unless Tony Soprano has put your feet in wet concrete, you’re guaranteed to at least tap your toes to this full and swinging sound with upright bass, shuffling piano, funky organ, rampant horns and cheerful, but also mild at times, vocals courtesy of no less than five lead singers, who mostly sing in English.
Included are also a number of explosive and catchy instrumentals, where the musicians present their respective skills in a party-styled fashion.
Take Your Flight, Jim! is currently only available via the band’s website and over there you decide the price yourself.
2 tone, or two tone, is one of the reggae genres created in the UK in the 70’s. It’s closely tied to the short-lived label of the same name, and fuses the energy of ska and the attitude of punk rock with melodies from rocksteady and new wave.
The most well-known band of the genre is The Specials, who has had a number of big hits, including Rudy, A Message to You, Ghost Town and Too Much Too Young. There were of course other bands as well – The Selecter, The Beat and Madness certainly had their fair share of smash hits as well.
I guess the genre is still alive, but it doesn’t get much attention these days. But Phoenix City All-Stars – with an all-star cast including Sean Flowerdew from Pama International, Dave Barker from Dave & Ansell Collins and AJ Franklin from The Federals and The Chosen Few – has decided to pay tribute to the genre by going back to its roots.
Two Tone Gone Ska is an eight track celebration to one of Britain’s most iconic labels. And as a celebration Phoenix City All-Stars have taken some of 2 tone’s best and most well-known tracks and replanted them in a loud, sweaty and dirty club in Kingston, Jamaica, in the 60’s. The result is blazing ska in an authentic Skatalites style spiced with sweet rocksteady melodies.
2 Tone’s debt to the musical heritage of Jamaica is vast, and this album sheds light on the genre’s main influencers, but at the same time presents the songs in a brand new way.
Two Tone Gone Ska is now available on CD, digital download and LP, only 250 numbered copies though.
One of this year’s best releases is Alpheus ska and rocksteady set From Creation. Now there’s a new album in a similar style – Music is Medicine from London’s The Sidewalk Doctors.
Music is Medicine is their debut album and includes nine authentic rocksteady and ska-styles tunes fused with lead singer Nathan Thomas’ soft, almost whispering, voice.
This production is straightforward and non-polished. The organ is – as it should be – in the front seat on several songs, and the piano hook on With You is nicely borrowed from The Uniques’ My Conversation.
Music is Medicine might not be as great as From Creation, but it’s certainly a nice change to hear reggae that is not roots or dancehall these days.
Veteran singer Prince Blanco has just put out the ska-tinged EP Unify On The Hi-Fi. The EP is produced by Canadian dub master Dubmatix, with whom Prince Blanco won a Juno Award in 2010.
Prince Blanco has previously put out albums with various groups, such as The Skanksters and The Liquidaires. He has also performed alongside acclaimed singers Michael Rose and Freddie McGregor and contributed to the Joe Strummer tribute compilation Shatter the Hotel.
The new EP does not really sound as a Dubmatix production, even if the heavy bass lines are present. Unify On The Hi-Fi is a ska, rocksteady and early reggae love affair.
However, it is not mainly in the Jamaican tradition. It leans more towards the UK sound and artists and bands such as Dandy, The Specials and Pama International. It is reggae with lots of 60’s soul.
Three of the five tunes are in the ska vein and the pounding Ska Tissue, with some moaning horns, certainly makes your heart beat. The other two tunes include some nice and groovy organ work.
Highly recommended for everyone who is interested in expanding their one drop or dancehall horizon.