April 2004

Monty Alexander with Ernest Ranglin - Rocksteady
Telarc 83581
Released: 2004

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Ska, reggae, and other Jamaican musical styles have not received the recognition from hi-rez audio that their popularity seems to indicate they should. With the release of Rocksteady on SACD, Telarc and pianist Monty Alexander are looking to redress that oversight. By teaming Alexander up with Jamaican guitar legend (and old friend) Ernest Ranglin, Telarc allows these two musicians to dip their oars once again deep into the wellspring of inspiration that is their homeland, Jamaica.

Right from the opening chords of Rocksteady’s initial track, "Trouble Barrel," you know this album's going to rock. You can almost see the smiles that lit up the faces of all concerned as they recorded the disc. In addition to Alexander and Ranglin, Rocksteady features rhythm guitarist Junior Jazz, keyboardist Gary Mayone, acoustic bassist Hassan Shakur, drummer Quentin Baxter, and, on two tracks, hand drummer Courtney Panton. (There is one other special guest -- but I’ll reveal his identity later.)

This disc is Alexander and Ranglin’s homage to the music of their youth -- a look back at the heyday of Jamaica’s famous Studio One, under the musical direction of legendary producer Clement Coxsone Dodd. Monty, as a boy, used to "tief out" (that is, sneak off) from high school to hang at Studio One, and was eventually allowed to join in and showcase his abilities, amazing even at that time. He ended up playing on many of the hits that came out of that studio in the late 1950s, including tunes by such artists as Joe Higgs, Theophilous Beckford, Roland Alphonso, The Blues Busters, and Toots & The Maytals. By 1961 Alexander had left for the U.S. and the opportunity to build his career as both an in-demand accompanist and jazz bandleader.

Ranglin’s musical heritage stretches back to his days as both a guitar master extraordinaire and an A&R man for Dodds. It was Ranglin who helped launch the careers of Alphonso, Jackie Mittoo, Bubba Brooks, Horace Andy, Dennis Brown, John Holt, and Toots & The Maytals. He was even a part of the birthing of the ska scene. And he accomplished all this while having to "hide his light under a basket," so to speak, working in the supper clubs of Kingston - - whose owners frowned on what they considered ghetto music. Needless to say, Ranglin succeeded in developing and bringing across the music he loved, as his guitar work here amply demonstrates.

Rocksteady adheres to no distinct musical type. Alexander and Ranglin are far too versed in multiple musical styles to allow that. What you get here is a distillation of those multiple styles into music that is a heady brew, one that will both please and inspire even the most stuffed-shirted listener. It may even cause you to search out the separate musical styles, including reggae, ska, blues, and jazz, that make up this album.

While each track recorded here is excellent, some are just more fun than the others. Alexander’s version of Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" will get you up and dancing for sure. So will the vocals of special guest (see, I told you I’d reveal him) Toots Hibbert of Toots & The Maytals, who sings his great song "Pressure Drop." Both Alexander and Ranglin provide the perfect backdrop for Toots to demonstrate his vocal powers. Especially impressive is a cover of Bob Marley’s "Redemption Song." Alexander and Ranglin play it with the type of reverence usually reserved for Mozart, Bach or Beethoven. It throws into sharp contrast the joyousness of the preceding numbers, and makes a fitting conclusion to Rocksteady.

This album works on a number of different levels, and should come to be appreciated by a wide cross-section of listeners. It allows Alexander and Ranglin to return to their musical roots, while spicing it up with all they’ve learned in the intervening years. Both the stereo and multichannel layers of this hybrid SACD offer the usual superb Telarc sound, but I found that it was the multichannel mix that gave me the best insight into what Alexander and Ranglin had in mind when they recorded Rocksteady. The CD layer is just as much fun, even though it doesn’t flesh things out quite as well as the SACD layers do.

While it's great to have this music in hi-rez, what really matters is that Rocksteady is one whale of a lot of fun.