Although ska may be an exceedingly vibrant and energetic force, it's not a new one. In fact, the roots of the music are practically the same age as Tommy McCook, the fiftysomething leader of the Skatalites, one of Jamaica's earliest ska bands. But while McCook isn't personally in great shape (he's still recovering from heart bypass surgery performed April 17), the Skatalites are stronger than ever. And in McCook's mind, the reasons are obvious. "It is the soul," he says. "Ska has much more soul than people realize."
McCook's assertion is backed up by Hi-Bop Ska, a disc released last year by the Shanachie imprint to commemorate the Skatalites' thirtieth anniversary. Platters of this type usually wind up as creatively slack time-wasters in which players past their prime simply go through the motions. But that criticism can't be pinned on Hi-Bop Ska. The recording is a forward-looking offering in which McCook and his crew (tenor saxophonist Roland Alphonso, drummer Lloyd Knibbs, bassist Lloyd Brevett, trumpeter Nathan Breedlove, trombonist Will Clark, guitarist Devon James, keyboardist Bill Smith and vocalist Doreen Shaeffer) guide an intriguing roster of guests onto their turf. Toots and the Maytals, Prince Buster, trumpeter Lester Bowie, saxophone colossus David Murray and trombonist Steve Turre are among those whose cheerful collaborations help the group take ska to a place it's never been before. Forget the young performers engaged in goosing along yet another ska comeback: As judged by their latest release, the Skatalites are more adventurous than any of them.
Unfortunately, McCook has been unable to reap the benefits of the Skatalites' latest accomplishments in person. The culprit, of course, is his health. "I'm feeling pretty good. I'm improving," he insists, his speech slow and deliberate. "I just need to get my endurance back." Until he does, he will not be touring with the Skatalites: Trumpeter Breedlove is handling McCook's emceeing chores during the act's current journey through the United States. But McCook remains the Skatalites' spokesperson, its historian and the still-living embodiment of ska--a genre whose antecedents may come as a surprise to many rude-boy-come-latelies.
As is the case with the highly charged Latin act Manny Oquendo & Libre (see page 78), jazz is a key ingredient for the Skatalites. McCook and most of the other original bandmembers began their musical careers working in Jamaican big bands that were popular during the Forties and Fifties. "Ska music has always attracted great jazz players," McCook points out. "It has contributed to our music immensely--it goes back to the swing days and the be-bop days. We can't really live without it. But, of course, jazz provides the backbone for all improvisers. There are so many great instrumentalists in jazz, and anyone who comes into a musical field with lesser skills can listen to these men and gain knowledge of their techniques and what have you."
Of course, ska does not live by jazz alone. The style is a herky-jerky mix of a great many musical forms, including the jump blues of Louis Jordan and the distinctive New Orleans R&B popularized by artists such as Lee Dorsey (his early-Sixties hits included "Ya Ya" and "Working in the Coal Mine"). These inspirations first came together in 1959 with Theophilus Beckford's "Easy Snapping," which is regarded by a number of historians as the first ska cut. The tenor saxophonist on the session was future Skatalite Roland Alphonso.
By 1962 McCook was in demand as a session player for a slew of ska artists; these jobs brought him into contact with Brevett, Knibbs, brilliant drummer Don Drummond and other musicians with similar backgrounds. Two years later they formed the Skatalites, a moniker that paid tribute to both ska and the then-burgeoning interest in satellites and outer space. The music was primarily instrumental, combining the deep, off-kilter groove that led to modern reggae with wild yet fluid blowing from brass and reed experts. "Guns of Navarone" and "Man in the Street" (presented in new versions on Hi-Bop Ska) were enormous hits in Jamaica, and while they were less popular in the United States, they helped pave the way for the incursion of reggae over the course of the next two decades.
The Skatalites' heyday was short-lived, however. In 1966 the band split into two separate units: the Soul Vendors, spearheaded by Alphonso, and the McCook-led Supersonics. But these outfits didn't have the impact of the Skatalites, and they became known more for studio work than for their own albums. Drummond, who had a history of mental problems, made the biggest headlines of the former Skatalites following the breakup, but his notoriety was extramusical. He was incarcerated in an asylum after murdering his girlfriend and died in 1969.
For a time ska seemed to be heading for its demise, as well: The international acclaim that greeted work by Bob Marley and the Wailers and many of his disciples made ska sound like a mere reggae precursor (the same prejudice resulted in rockabilly being seen as nothing more than the stuff that jolted rock and roll to life). But ska's up-tempo rhythms--almost always faster than reggae's trademark lope--was too insistent to remain silent forever. In late-Seventies England, combos on the periphery of the punk-rock scene launched what became known as the Two-Tone movement. The Specials, the Beat (called the English Beat in the U.S.), Madness and the Selector were the marquee names associated with this period, but while they were branded with the ska label, they were definitely hybrids. Their material was dominated by vocals, and even though some of the bands provided space for talented soloists (for instance, Beat saxophonist Saxa), most were far more pop than the Skatalites. The same holds true of the participants in today's latest ska revival, epitomized by the Two-Tone flashback ska of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. "Most of these groups send me CDs when they make one," McCook reports, "and some of them are exciting--some of them are in the right groove, so to speak. But many of them are still playing rock, with only touches of ska."
Genuine or not, neo-ska prompted renewed interest in the Skatalites, who re-formed for an album in 1976--a year or so too soon to truly capitalize on Two-Tone mania. In the early Eighties, McCook reconvened his brainchildren a second time for a performance in the U.S. and found that the environment here was friendlier than the one in his native Jamaica.
"I found that people here were reacting to the music the way I like to see, the way it was in the early days," he says. "So I decided to move to America and try to make it on this side of the water. And I found out that we could survive playing our instruments. We could make money. And we have continued to do so until we reached the point we're at now.
"It is much better for us in America, because the music has changed in Jamaica. By the Eighties you had more rap in music and less room for instrumentalists like myself. In dancehall and rap, the rapper forces out the horn, man. In our music, we are able to play choruses and contribute to orchestration and let instrumental soloists fill in the gaps, but the music of Jamaica today doesn't call for that. Now they rap from the beginning to the end of the record, and the little space that is left is used for something like redoing the introduction in a few bars, or some similar thing. So the instrumentalist is left out in the cold. That's why, for me, dancehall is not as musically challenging."
The Skatalites' determination to do things their way eventually resulted in a pact with Shanachie, which released the worthy CD Skavooves in 1991. But it was Hi-Bop Ska that truly served notice that the Skatalites remained capable of great things. McCook deserves much of the credit; it was he who chose the outside musicians who added so much to the proceedings.
"I met Lester Bowie in Jamaica," he recalls. "He was spending time there, and one of the writers of jazz asked me if he could bring him to one of our jazz sessions. I said, `Bring him along, by all means,' and we discovered each other. I also met Steve Turre in Jamaica--he is a fantastic musician who I respect and love very much. And I met David Murray at a club in Greenwich Village. I was invited to hear him, and I was very impressed."
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For the Hi-Bop Ska sessions, Murray brought with him a rearranged version of "Flowers for Albert," a tribute to Albert Ayler he first recorded during the Seventies. This blend of skronk and ska shouldn't work, but somehow it does--beautifully. Similarly entrancing are the Bowie-penned "Ska Reggae Hi-Bop" and the classic Skatalites material, which is imbued with new and boisterous life.
Whether the Skatalites will be able to match this high point next time around is uncertain; McCook answers "I don't know" to every question posed about the conglomeration's next recording, a studio project that gets under way in September. His advice to anyone who wishes to follow in his large footsteps is similarly succinct.
"Learn to play your instrument," he declares. "When you are given a chance to express yourself, learn to do so eloquently. That is what I strive to do."
The Skatalites, with Regatta 69 and Insatiable. 9 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, 447-0095.