Laurel Aitken & the Skatalites
In Greek Mythology, the Titans were legendary deities, literal giants that preceded and begot Zeus and his lot of latter-day gods and goddesses. How appropriate, then, the title of this album, which matches "The Godfather of Ska," Laurel Aitken (so called because he is credited with the very first ska single, 1958's "Little Sheila/Boogie in My Bones"), with a band largely considered the founding fathers of ska (thanks to its members acting as session players on the most important early ska and reggae recordings), the Skatalites. Surely, these stalwart gentlemen fit the definition of Titans to a T -- legendary giants that created a new form of music, begot a slew of followers, and had a profound influence on the entire world of music!
Surely, a collaboration between Aitken and the Skatalites seems like a guaranteed success, but these tracks (recorded during 1996's European Ska Splash tour) are truly special -- they're meeting up on record for the first time since 1964! Ska Titans features original Skatalites Roland Alphonso (who sadly passed on late last year) and Lester "Ska" Sterling (saxophones), Lloyd Brevett (bass), and Lloyd Knibb (drums), along with longtime bandmembers Devon James (guitar), Will Clark (trombone), and Nathan Breedlove (trumpet), backing Aitken's amazing vocals on a set of classics, including several Aitken originals.
As you'd expect, the musical accompaniment is top notch throughout. Nobody can set a groove like Brevett and Knibb, and their rhythm section is sure to get feet moving to tracks like the Lord Tanamo classics "Mood For Ska" and "Come Down." Aitken's pipes get a nice workout on a sterling cover of the Four Tops' "Same Old Song," but my favorite tracks are the Aitken originals. "Summertime" is a masterpiece of mood, with a steamy, dirty, dubby feel that perfectly creates the image of "summertime in the ghetto." By contrast, "I Love You" is light and airy, as the tune almost skips along on the strength of Clark's buoyant trombone and Aitken's soaring vocals. James' folky guitar line drives "Rude Boy Dreams," while "Bad Minded Woman" has a simple, straightforward, sweet ska sound. The horn section is tight as you'd expect, but is mostly limited to accenting the tunes, so as not to interfere with Aitken's powerful voice. Still, each member gets a shot in the solo spotlight, most notably a playful alto line from Sterling on "Come Down" and a soulful Alphonso riff on "Rude Boy Dreams."
As an added bonus, three live tracks, recorded during the Ska Splash's stop in Amsterdam, are included. The live setting allows the band to stretch a bit more, so the versions of "Come Down" and "Mood For Ska" are a little fuller, and of course display the incredible energy that these men have maintained well into their sixties. The real gem among the live tracks, though, is "Sugar Sugar," a song penned by Aitken for the lovely Doreen Schaffer, the Skatalites' long-time vocalist. Ms. Schaffer still has one of the most beautiful voices in the world, and uses it to its finest effect on this gorgeous ska ballad.
Ska Titans is an essential slice of history, not just for ska fans, but for music aficionados in general. As the reverent liner notes from Richie Senior (better known as Dr. Ring-Ding) mention, "[i]f it wasn't for [the Skatalites], there would be no ska and reggae as we know it today! And if you take into consideration that the best part of today's dancefloor pop is based on reggae and hip hop grooves, you can say that the work of these 'forefathers' has coined over forty years of not only Jamaican music, but pop music worldwide." I can't think of a better justification for my own final word on this jewel: Ska Titans belongs in every serious music fan's record collection.
Furthermore, you shouldn't miss your chance to catch a ska legend in action! Laurel Aitken visits Florida this month, backed by the talented Boston band, the Allstonians. They'll be appearing July 14th at the Cow Haus in Tallahassee, July 15th at FuBar in Ft. Lauderdale, and July 16th at the Sapphire Supper Club in Orlando.
Moon Ska Records, PO Box 1412, New York, NY 10276, www.moonska.com