by Julio Diaz
The story goes that the New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble started with a backstage conversation. "It happened in 1993," reveals bandleader "Rocksteady" Freddy Reiter, longtime saxophonist for one of the world's best-loved ska bands, the Toasters. "We were doing the Skavoovie tour; Rick (Faulkner, trombonist) and I were playing with the Toasters, and the Skatalites were on the tour, the Special Beat, and the Selecter. Cary Brown, our keyboard player, was playing with the Skatalites at the time. [Rick and I] just saw them every night kickin' it, really rockin' the crowd, and we're all coming from this jazz background, and while we loved playing with the Toasters, we wanted to stretch out a little more, and sort of focus on the instrumental form."
The Skatalites' inspiring performances gave Reiter and Faulkner a lot to think about. Before giving ska to the world, the Skatalites were jazz musicians, and the influence is easily heard in their music. But by 1993, ska's jazz roots were almost invisible. As Reiter puts it, he and Faulkner "started talking about doing our own version of what we saw the Skatalites doing, a `90s version, so to speak."
Their choices to make up the New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble were no lightweights. In addition to their years of experience playing ska, most of the band members have at a degree in music, and some, in fact, are instructors in their own right. "I still teach," says Reiter. "When I'm not on tour, I have like 20 private students. I've also taught at the Stamford Jazz Workshop in Paolo Alto." Reiter himself was an Ivy Leaguer in his college days. "I went to Princeton, can't you tell?" he asks, momentarily affecting an upper-class accent. "I used to play with a guitarist named Stanley Jordan there. That was in my formative years, and that's when I really decided to become a musician. Victor Rice (bassist, former member of the Scofflaws and ska mega-producer) went to Manhattan School [of Music], Rick Faulkner also went to Manhattan for a while, and to Indiana, I believe. Johnnathan McCain, our drummer, is more of a natural guy, he was in the Toasters when he was 17, and was in another band called Thick as Thieves. He was even in Martin Scorcese's movie, New York Stories, back in the day. Cary Brown (keyboards, ex-Skatalites and Scofflaws) is a Boston guy, and went to Berklee [School of Music] for a while. And then, of course, Devon James is a Skatalite." Surprisingly, though, assembling this stellar line-up was easy. "Basically, all our first choice guys, we got," Reiter says. "We asked everyone, everyone wanted to do it, and it started as a side project. We were gonna do a record and see what [was] happening."
However, the very first gig that the fledgling Ensemble played changed all of that. "We played our first show opening up for the Skatalites at the Manhattan Center, and there were 1500 people," Reiter recalls. "We started getting great offers, and we loved playing together, so we just keep doing it!"
Splitting time between two high-profile bands is not easy. Multiply those potential scheduling issues by six when you're talking about a busy all-star conglomeration like NYSJE. For Reiter's part, he says "up to this point, it's been kind of crazy and rough, because I've been basically working all the time, non-stop. I was also playing with the Scofflaws a few years ago, so it was just like non-stop playing. I think what's going to happen is [that] I'm probably going to start focusing more on the New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble, just because the offers are too good to turn down. We just played in Italy and averaged 1700 people a night. We played at the North Sea Jazz Festival. I did just do the Toasters' Ska Against Racism tour, but I think coming in the future, this band is going to be more of my priority."
While the offers may be too good to pass up, I wondered if Reiter has more fun with NYSJE than the Toasters. "I hate to say stuff like that," he says. "I have to say, this is more of my baby. It's more of my artistic dream. With the other band, I've been more of a sideman. I still feel a part of the Toasters - I did it for seven years - but this band, I really feel like I'm the one who's been doing the business for the band, so I've been gearing where it goes, so it feels much more personal."
Still, those other commitments do come into play. On their most recent tour (playing two sets a night - a full set of NYSJE material and another full set as the backing band for ska legend Laurel Aitken), Devon James was away with the Skatalites, but his position was ably filled by Skinnerbox/Stubborn All-Stars guitarist Dave Hahn. "We've been aware of Dave for a long time," explains Reiter, "I guess Victor turned us on to him originally, then once we heard him play, it was like `oh, man!' It's great to have him here."
The prospect of touring with Aitken was no small honor. Aitken is known as the Godfather of Ska, and is responsible for not only some of the earliest ska tracks, but also some of the most loved - classics like "Sally Brown," "Hey Bartender," and "Sahara." "Basically, Laurel's a legend," Reiter agrees, and says, "it was a thrill to even be broached" about touring together. "Basically, [Aitken and his manager] had heard us and liked the band, and said `you guys wanna come out?' and we were like, `of course!' We might even be doing another one with him; we're going to go to Europe, possibly, to do Ska Splash in November and December." The collaboration may even extend to recording, Reiter adds, stating "we've already been talking about it. It's all a matter of time and space. This tour is very busy. We're playing almost every night, and then he's leaving the last night, so...we have a friend in California who has a studio, we might be able to nip in there and do a little something, but if not, we're talking about maybe getting together during that European tour. We'd love to. It'd be an honor, really."
One of the highlights of the Ensemble's three albums has been the stellar parade of guest vocalists the band has recruited. Aside from regular vocal contributions from drummer McCain, guests have included the Pietasters' Steve Jackson, the Toasters' Jack Ruby, Jr., the incredible Caz Gardener of the Checkered Cabs, and Hepcat's Greg Lee, Alex Desert, and Deston Berry. "We pick people who we hear live, on the scene," Reiter imparts. "Basically, we look for people who are a little extra-special, and really can add something to what we're doing. We'd been doing gigs with the Checkered Cabs for years and years. I remember at the old 9:30 Club (in Washington, DC), back in the day, I heard her sing "Perfidia," and I was like `oh, man, that girl's got such a great voice, I'm going to have to use her on something one of these days. Steve Jackson, the Pietasters had such a big buzz, and I just liked his vibe. Ruby is our buddy from the Toasters, and he's just a great chatter."
Of all the band's collaborations, though, Reiter seems to have the most enthusiasm for their efforts with Hepcat. I think [they] are just about the best singers on the ska scene today. For them, it was like, hearing them sing, and putting that together with the ska-jazz, was just like an incredible marriage. For me, "John and James" was just like a killer track, it could be a `hit' type thing." Covering the Toots & the Maytals classic was not only a magical musical moment for the band, it was a challenge, as well. "The way we did that was kind of interesting," Reiter shares. "I stayed up with my wife all night, and we slowed the tape to like half speed, trying to hear the words - all the Jamaicans, even if you ask the Jamaicans what the words are, they might have like ten different versions. We got our version, then I called Alex up, and I was on the phone with him, and I was like, `Alex, this is what I got," and we changed it a bit. The New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble did the backing tracks in New York - actually did it in Jersey, at Lenny Kravitz's old studio, Waterfront - we sent [Hepcat] the tape, they just did their tracks, and mixed it. They sent us back the finished product."
In spite of these unforgettable opportunities, one would imagine that it would be more lucrative for Reiter and company to teach full time. "The funny thing for me," Reiter laughs, "is that all the time I was playing with the Toasters, many of those years before they started making better money, I used to be able to make more money staying home teaching. But I always felt like performing was more of my calling. You don't play music for the money. I mean, thank God, knock on wood, the money's been coming, but it's not a pure money thing. I could teach a billion kids a week and make tons of dough, but that's not what I'm about. I'm about playing, and performing. I've been lucky enough to be able to make money, too. I feel fortunate."
Still, the popularity of ska is no longer at the fevered pitch it was a year ago, when the media had jumped full force on to the bandwagon that now seems to be passing by in favor of swing. Would the NYSJE be more successful if they left the ska side behind? Reiter says, "I don't really concern myself with that stuff. Obviously, we need people to come to the shows. My whole thing has been that good music will out, in other words, people will come out to hear good music no matter what it is. We basically broke the door down with the ska crowd, and we're thankful for the ska crowd, but we want to bust out to the World music, and the jazz people - like I said, we just played the North Sea Jazz Festival, and everybody's used to sitting in their seats, and we had the whole place dancing! I think the fact is that our band can be successful irregardless of whether ska is big or not because we're appealing to people that like good music. We can play in a jazz club, or we can play in a ska club, or we can play wherever. The point is, I think the music works on different levels. We have very talented musicians in the band, you can listen to all the technique, and the harmony and all that, or else you can dance. I still think of the Ska-Jazz as a dance band. So, who cares what's the next thing? If swing becomes the next thing, or the next whatever it is, so be it."
In conclusion, Reiter adds, "for me, as a musician, I love ska music, but I love every kind of music, so I'll be playing. I play blues, I play rock n' roll, I play jazz, I play funk. I love to play ska, but I also love to do the other things, too. So it's not like, `I only have to play ska music, and if we can't play it, I'm just never going to play again.' I've been in a million bands since I started this thing, and I hope, God willing, I'll be in a million more. It doesn't matter, as long as people come out to hear us play. I think this band will attract people irregardless of what the `thing' is. The thing about the ska `thing,' or the movement, is that it's been a real ska-punk, kiddie thing. As much as we appeal to the kids, I think we can appeal to older people, too. I think good music will out, and I hope so."