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In a Ska-Lent Way: 24 Skas & Rocksteadys of Jazz origin

1. Baba Brooks - "Musical Communion" (Reid 1956)

Originally Sonny Rollins "St Thomas" (1926)

If you didn’t already know, Jamaican trumpeter & bandleader Baba Brooks is Cedric “Im” Brooks’ uncle, though in my tiny, infantile brain, he will always be the man who recorded “I Want My Cock” with Owen and Leon Silvera. Eventually I stopped giggling at the back and played the record. It was charming. Then I ran into this.

Now nothing says good taste quite as lucidly as borrowing a page from Sonny Rollins’ songbook, though Rollins’ himself acknowledges that St Thomas is an extension of old West Indian (Rollins’ family originate from the West Indies) melody, so in a way this is as much a case of taking back as it is borrowing.

2. Jo Jo Bennett "Cantaloupe Rock" (Mudie 1967)

Originally Herbie Hancock Cantaloupe Island" (Blue Note 1964)

Minor scorcher from the ex-Dragonnaire. The horn arrangement on here is so far off the chain you’ll need to assign a no win-no fee bounty hunter to get it back.

I was told Bennett didn’t really know Herbie’s original, which might explain why my copy of this record gives the song-writing credit to Hugh Masekela (misspelt Maskela for good value)!

3. Lloyd Clarke "Summertime" (Edwards 1964)

Originally George Gershwin "Summertime" from the 1935 opera "Porgy And Bess"

In the right set-up, nothing beats a male tenor singer. This is a classy arrangement, the production - all Clarke’s work - is exemplary and all I’ll say is this is strikingly beautiful music that deserves floor space next to the other great Summertimes.

4. Lester Sterling & his Group - "Indian Summer" (Dodd 1964)

Originally Victor Herbert "Indian Summer" (1919)

Popularized by Duke Ellington (1956)

Sterling is the only living member of the original Skatalites but is best known for his own compositions, “Lee Harvey Oswald” and “Bangarang”.

I haven’t seen this one around in a fair while. It’s a gorgeous tune when played delicately, and isn’t an obvious one for the ska treatment, but Sterling’s group have all the poise, concision and swing required to make this do-over work. They do. It does.

5. Val Bennett "The Russians Are Coming" (Bunny Lee 1968)

Originally Dave Brubeck "Take Five" (Columbia 1961)

Ska/Rocksteady (this one’s Rocksteady) cover tunes are often named after despots, civil rights activists, communist stalwarts and hammy Norman Jewison films, so it can be hard work tracking down that nice little ska “Take Five” you once heard. So, for the cryptically-challenged, here is the very one.

Val’s a first-call tenor sax man who led his own band in the forties before later stints with Prince Buster’s band, Harry J Allstars and The Upsetters. He might not quite have Paul Desmond’s chops but Bennett is more than a by-the-numbers player and his band play some superior things on this Bunny Lee produced cut.

6. Llans Thelwell - "Jive Samba" (Soul)

Originally Cannonball Adderley Sextet "Jive Samba" (Riverside 1962)

The original is a blues-based piece with a samba rhythm underneath. It appears on a number of Cannonball’s live recordings and seems to be one of those breathing tunes that you can’t really nail in a studio setting (this one sounds like it’s been recorded in a marketplace).

This is certainly Llans’ “Jive Samba”. His band’s sound is slightly Eastern, slightly Fania-style latin and the drumming is far busier than on any version Adderley recorded. Cannonball was a tremendously searching and joyful player, so I’m sure he’d have enjoyed both these features.

7. Jackie Mittoo - Take Ten (Supreme, 1967)

Originally Paul Desmond - "Take Ten" (1963)

Paul Desmond’s “Take Ten” is a lesser known reworking of the earlier hit piece he wrote for Dave Brubeck, “Take Five”. The latter tune is credited with getting mainstream folks to dance in 5/4. “Take Ten” is in 10/8, so I doubt the dancefloor was ever on its radar…… then Jackie Mittoo got hold of it and the rest is something like obvious.

Jackie Mittoo basically played a supplementary role in the Skatalites where it was much more about the horns , and at times his solo material can be a little lacklustre, but this is just a great cover; one of those creations that unblocks the ears, and gets you thinking that things are much more up for grabs than you believed.

8. Lester Sterling - Casa Blanca (Percy Chin US 1975)

Originally Lee Morgan "The Sidewinder" (Blue Note, 1963)

We’ll always have cryptic ska-titles…. If this ain’t a deadly bite from Lee Morgan’s ”The Sidewinder”, then I just don’t know.

"Casa Blanca" somehow manages to condense two superbly developed solo’s (Sterling on sax and Lyn Taitt on guitar) into its 3 minutes, which takes some doing.

9. Skatalites "Malcolm X" (Randy´s 1963)

Originally Lee Morgan "The Sidewinder" (Blue Note 1963)

By all means necessary, there must be cryptic ska-titles…..if this ain’t a deadly bite from Lee Morgan’s ”The Sidewinder”, then I just don’t know.

A Vinny Chin production, this is one of several Skatalites jazz covers and is a more muscular, pistol whipping approach to the tune than Sterling’s.

10. Jazz Jamaica - So What (Eau Records, 1995)

Originally Miles Davis - " So What" (1959)

I once read “Elmore Leonard’s Top 10 Crappy Elmore Leonard Film Adaptations”, where he pretty much macheted every film based on his books or scripts that wasn’t Jackie Brown or Hombre. He didn’t go full-cunt, Ginger Baker style; he just picked each one apart, ill-conceived bit by ill-conceived bit until there was nothing. Call me a closet sadist but I loved it.

I think Miles Davis would make Leonard look positively saintly if tasked with the same ‘challenge’, yet Jazz musicians – even big stars – are more likely to name drop their tenuous association with Miles than a longer stint with almost anyone else. Like him or loathe him, saying you played with Miles (remember to leave out the “in the eighties” bit) is tantamount to saying you’ve meditated with the Dalai Lama. Miles – even after his passing – intimidates though, so covering his material is different fruit, and might partly explain why it took so long for anyone in ska to re-do his most famous composition.

London-based double bassist Gary Crosby (who is Ernest Ranglin’s nephew) and his group had been playing ‘skazz’ for a few years before their “So What?”, and even though his musicians have always had an extra gear chops-wise, I reckon this was the first of their releases to bring home the ‘great material, great musicianship, great production’ triple crown. You’d like to think Miles would give Jazz Jamaica a little something for this one.

11. Lennie Hibbert - "Village Soul" (Dodd, 1969)

Originally Johnny Lytle "The Village Caller" (Riverside, 1964)

I’m confused as to why Reggae is still so bereft of vibraphone players. I mean, what’s not to like about this?

The album “Village Soul” is taken from, “Creation”, may not be quite as consistent as the very best Augustus Pablo (the other high-profile ‘novelty’ reggae instrumentalist), but it is buoyantly upbeat and doesn’t sound novelty at all.

It’s maybe too easy to put the results entirely down to the “Coxsone touch”, with the standard of playing on offer, but it sure helps to have a producer who knows exactly how to place and pitch the instrument’s very pure, bell-like sound amidst the thudding percussion and Hammond sprawls.

12. Jeanette Simpson - "My Baby Just Cares For Me" (Dandy, 1968)

Originally written by Walter Donaldson, Gus Kahn for the 1930 film version of the 1928 Ziegfeld musical comedy 'Whoopee!'

Popularized by Nina Simone "My Baby Just Cares For Me" (Bethlehem, 1958)

The menacing intro offers the promise of anything but “My Baby Just Cares For Me” and Simpson seems to be singing this with the Nina Simone version in mind, even as the arrangement gets more and more sinister. That should make for a pretty shabby offering but it doesn’t just work, its brilliant. The B3 solo helped. Dandy Livingstone gets a ‘music supervisor’ credit.

13. Roland Alphonso "VC 10" (Yap 1965)

Originally Ray Bryant "Shake a Lady" (Sue Records, 1964)

When Monty Alexander calls Roland Alphonso a ‘funky Stan Getz’, its meant as a compliment, but it seems to me that once a horn player is labelled as ‘funky’ or ‘groovy’, they are forever refused entrance into the pantheon. Alphonso gets forgotten in all the furore over Drummond, Ranglin and Mittoo, but go back and listen to Skatalites classics like “Tear Up”, “Hot Cargo”, “Black Sunday” etc and you’ll hear a very accomplished player.

He’s a big Cannonball Adderley fan, so it’s no surprise that he took on “Shake a Lady”, an old up-tempo Cannonball favourite written by pianist Ray Bryant. It maintains its bounce but there’s also something looming – like the best Drummond things – in this arrangement that takes it to a slightly darker place than other versions.

14. Soul Vendors "Drum Song" (Dodd 1968)

Originally Gerald Wilson "Viva Tirado"(Pacific Jazz , 1962)

Mittoo was the original ‘sampler’. When he ghost-wrote Marcia Griffiths’ “Feel Like Jumping”, he combined the melodies from the Marvelettes’ “Don’t Mess With Mr Bill” and the Esquires “Get On Up” to create something that didn’t sound exactly like either. He supposedly used a similar approach on tunes like Peter Tosh’s “I’m The Toughest” and Delroy Wilson’s “Trying to Conquer”.

This is more like the aura sound of Viva Tirado (Mal Waldron does something similar with Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”) than a straight cover and there's ever so slightly too much going on, but its a quite extraordinary re-reading of a song that you really wouldn’t feel inclined to mess with.

15. J.J. All Stars "Memphis Underground" (Carl J.J. Johnson 1969)

Originally Herbie Mann "Memphis Underground" (Atlantic, 1969)

The favoured backing band of producer and owner of JJ Records, J.J Johnson (not that one). Very few releases under their name exist today, and after J.J was shot dead in in his record shop a few years on from this recording, the band disappeared without a trace.

This is an extremely likeable version of Herbie Mann’s infectious jazz-rock hit. No vibraphone or fuzzy guitars this time out, but props for even attempting to go toe-to-toe with Mann on the flute solo. It’s actually a more appealing melody when played at reggae tempo.

16. Los Caballeros Orchestra "Make Yourself Comfortable"(C Johnson, 1966)

Originally Sarah Vaughan "Make Yourself Comfortable" (Mercury, 1961)

Los Caballeros Orchestra had pedigree. They were the rhythm section on Roy Panton’s “Beware Rudie” and their own Keino Ska was big amongst the Two Tone Tonic’s. This is less well known than both but it has its moments of magic.

The original “Make Yourself Comfortable” is a wonderful little ballad, not quite epic in scale, but it still takes good ears to hear any pulse potential underneath all those strings. This reading gives it the sort of vamping, Marabi feel that you’d associate with Cape jazz players like Abdullah Ibrahim and Basil Coetzee. Virile.

17. Roland Alphonso - "Forest Flowers" (Dodd 1965)

Originally Charles Lloyd "Forest Flower" (Columbia, 1964)

My introduction to Studio One. I bought this from that incurably rude man who ran Haggle Vinyl in Islington. I asked him whether it had anything to do with Charles Lloyd's version and he responded with the usual "how the hell would I bloody know? I just listen to the Johnny Hodges records. If you don't want it then put it back on the rack. Idiot". Charmer.

It was a good pick too. Nothing like as girthy as Lloyd's version which features some of my favourite Keith Jarrett playing, but it steals some points on the original with its guitar licks.

Oh, Haggle is either a bakery or a laundrette now. I forget which.

18. Roland Alphonso - Song For My Father (Kong 1967)

Originally Horace Silver - "Song For My Father" (1965)

I don’t need to say much about Silver (other than apologise for omitting every last one of his fine eighties albums from the ‘101 Miracles’) as his place as a top-tier pianist and composer in jazz annals is secure. For all his contributions to jazz repertoires from the fifties to today, however, nothing in Silver’s cannon even remotely approximated “Song for My Father’s” commercial success. It’s been covered so many times by now that we’d all be forgiven for forgetting whose father the song was intended for in the first place.

Still, a no-frills banger is a no-frills banger. In true ska style, the horns are just about out-of-tune, the transitions are just a little sloppy and the fade out at the end is ludicrous but it adds up to something thrilling and whoever decided to go with that percussion rolling underneath deserves a good back slapping.

19. The Skatalites "Christine Keeler" (C And N Records, 1964)

Originally Dave Bailey Quintet's "Comin'Home Baby"(1961) Written by Ben Tucker

Deft little maneuver at the bottom of the main theme transforms this from cheery finger-clicker to street gang stompdown. Just a couple of notes! Listen.

One of the best things they did and a real showcase for Alphonso, though the second solo is taken Johnny 'Dizzy' Moore. If this list was limited to Skatalites-related musicians only, it wouldn't be weaker for it.

20. Lester Sterling "Forest Gate Rock" (Bunny Lee,1969)

Originally Charle Parker "Barbados" (Savoy, 1948)

Cryptic. Named so after Sterling gigged at the Upper Cut in Forest Gate during his Skatalite days (1967). Stevie and Jimi played there in the same year, so I guess it must have been the spot.

One of the best examples of ‘simple is best’. It’s no more than a fat bassline underneath Sterling’s incessant reinstating of the main theme from Charlie Parker’s “Barbados” (one of Bird’s shortest compositions). Of course it works.

21. Tommy McCook & the Supersonics "Heatwave (Moving)" (Reid 1968)

Originally Lou Donaldson "Peepin´" (Blue Note LP 'Mr. Shing-A-Ling' 1967) written by Lonnie Smith

If you want a taste of something that grooves hard but with some layers, then you can’t go too far off track with late-sixties Lou Donaldson. Blue Notes like “Alligator Boogaloo”, “Midnight Creeper” and “Mr. Shing-A-Ling” contain some fine, expressive playing but from a more commercial soul-jazz angle than say Jackie McLean’s or even Joe Henderson’s releases. Not for any other reason (Lou hadn’t lost his chops) than commercialism, those Lou albums featured as much or more organ – usually Lonnie Smith - than they did saxophone.

Tommy McCook’s Lou of choice, “Peepin’” is the best thing on “Mr Shing-A-Ling“, and is dripping in organ. McCook is an excellent musician in his own right, but clearly recognises that it’s made-to-measure so doesn’t embellish. This is one of the odd occasions where I’m grateful for that.

22.Byron Lee & The Dragonaires "Watermelon Man Ska" (Byron Lee 1964)

Originally Herbie Hancock Watermelon Man" (Blue Note 1962)

As a kid, I had no idea Byron Lee was a serious musician. I don’t know whether that was because of album sleeves with pictures of a Hawaiian-looking man giving the camera the thumbs up while boarding a jumbo jet, or that the records came with titles like “Many Moods of Byron Lee”, or just the sheer number of Byron Lee albums on the racks (nobody that prolific would care for such piffling details as quality, would they?). I thought he was the Al Hirt of reggae.

Wrong. Although, I’d later discover that Lee was seen by fellow Jamaican musicians as too ‘uptown’ to play reggae, he did establish Dynamic Sounds, then the most impressive recording facility in the West Indies and for 2 decades he kept the quality of his own output pretty high. I could knock up a 50-song strong Byron Lee playlist and still have enough change for another 20 odd (If you like Soca then you can double those numbers). “Watermelon Man” is straight, simple-as-sin Ska but would certainly make the cut.

23. Skatalites - Skaravan (Yap / Top Deck, 1965)

Originally Duke Ellington "Caravan" (1937)

There are a handful of Skatalite versions out there and any will do, but this blistering take here (usually marked as Take 3) is the one you're after.

It is peak-era Alphonso and Don Drummond, and by now you probably know that when Drummond wasn’t putting clay and dirt into his Ovaltine for “atomic energy”, he was carving out a rep as one the greatest players ever to pick up a trombone.

24. The MBV & Mudie's All Stars - Lorna's Dance

Originally Grover Washington Jnr "Loran's Dance"

Bobby Ellis, one of the top Jamaican players is on this. He's one of those trumpeters that makes you sit up in your chair. Jazz cats can get a little uppity about reggae musicians who arent Ernest Ranglin or Don Drummond, but dont even try that with Ellis.

This is the track that reminds me how close to American soul-jazz this stuff is. The tune will be familiar to hip-hop heads, A Tribe Called Quest sampled Grover Washington Jnr’s “Loran’s Dance” and the Beastie Boys took a chunk out of Idris Muhammed’s version. Both recommended ,but I’m in Lorna's corner.

George Nelson

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