At first look, jazz seems to have little use for reggae. After all, isn't the essence of jazz its flights of improvisatory fancy, while reggae's trademark is that resolute, lockdown rhythm? But a solid point from which to take off and return is most helpful when flying, and reggae provides a rhythmic foundation more solid than most.
The Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society (G.R.A.S.S.) is made up of Brooklyn area musicians who enjoy the improvisational spontaneity of jazz and the profound depth of Jamaican reggae. They collectively reach just about every corner of the musical universe: saxophonist Ohad Talmor
, for example, was born in Israel, grew up in Switzerland, and co-leads groups with friend and mentor Lee Konitz
. GRASS bandleader and bassist J. "Sumo" Granelli, son of drummer Jerry Granelli
, has studied with Charlie Haden
, played with pianist Mose Allison
, and also performs in two other bands. "It's impossible to understand jazz fully without an understanding of African and Western European classical music, for instance," Sumo explains. "'Mento-ska-rocksteady-reggae-dance hall' all spring originally from these same roots, so in effect our study of jazz and other forms of American roots music led us to Jamaican music naturally."
And so GRASS lit upon Catch a Fire
, the breakout album for The Wailersreggae's "holy trinity" of Bob Marley
, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer. "Our thing is a pretty different version of the music, so we put it in the order that worked best for what we had created," Granelli explains. "We also combine two songs ("Kinky Reggae" and "Midnight Ravers" here meld to become "Kinky Midnight") and added one that never made the original release ("High Tide, Low Tide") so the original order would not have worked anyway."
From both the jazz and reggae perspectives, their "thing" seems to work quite nicely. Trombone and alto sax flesh out "Concrete Jungle" over its reggae skeleton, with the alto's clarinet overtones bringing a kind of klezmer sound to its Caribbean beat. Bass and drums whip up the time of "400 Years" into a free jazz-for-all, the scrambled sound of wandering lost tribes.
In "Slave Driver," the chanted vocal ("Slave driver...catch a fire...slave driver...catch a fire...") echoes horns that sway like elephants in a conga line. "Stop That Train" jumps upon a cacophonous section where all the saxophones and trombone simultaneously playa great ejaculation of New Orleans ensemble jazz, cast in reggae but with a tinge of second line rhythms in the drum and bass. Harmonica puffs the melody to "Stir It Up," a light and carefree sound that warmly illuminates perhaps the most famous Wailers tune in this set.
Concrete Jungle; Baby We've Got a Date; Slave Driver; 400 Years; Kinky Midnight; Stir It Up; Stop That Train; High Tide; No More Trouble.
J. "Sumo" Granelli: bass; Nate "Natecha" Shaw: keyboards; Mark Miller: trombone; Russ Meissner: drums; Nick Balaban: keyboards; Ohad Talmor: tenor saxophone; Paul Carlos: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; David Bailis: guitar; David Barnes: harmonica; Michael Blake: tenor saxophone; Brad Shepik: guitar.