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Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society: G.R.A.S.S. On Fire

Jerry D'Souza By

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The Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society was fermented when a group of jazz musicians who shared the same vision for reggae got together for jam sessions at the home of keyboardist Nate Shaw. Their love of the music coalesced into a more tangent form when they presented the soundtrack to the 1972 film, The Harder They Come, at The Bowery Poetry Club in New York in 2009. The concept was well-received, and the band was fired up enough to focus on recording a CD. The result, G.R.A.S.S. On Fire, is a conceptualization of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Catch A Fire (Tuff Gong, 1973).

G.R.A.S.S. altered the sequence of the songs from the original album to make it more a reflection of their work as a group. They also merged "Kinky Reggae" and "Midnight Ravers" to come up with "Kinky Midnight," and added "High Tide, Low Tide" which did not make it onto the Marley release.

The band makes it quite apparent, from the opening track "Concrete Jungle," that the musical structure is of its own invention. The underlying reggae beat drives the music but the soloists bring their own sense of development to the table. It is fathomed in the arms of bop, free charging jazz harmonies, rock improvisation and swing, to make the whole a tantalizing sweep of giddy delight.

Each member of the group was given a copy of the lyrics—often politically charged, always potent—before the recording began. In keeping with the words' sentiment, the group's crafting of the songs become powerful statements. "Slave Driver" has a steely central core, shaped by the saxophones before guitarist David Bailis drives it deeper and Shaw adds to the impetus. But the groove has a constant forward momentum, with trombonist Mark Miller shaping the final visage with his keyboards.

"Stir It Up" is driven by bassist J. A. Granelli, with harmonicist David Barnes adding to the sensual undertone. The effect is stunning, as the band grooves to the pulse, adding layer-upon-layer of rich texture and exceptional harmonies.

The band is no hurry to kick into the beat on "Mo More Trouble," but once it does, the pulse is kept tight, with lean permutations. But it is when guitarist Brad Shepik takes off from the melody, in a blaze of molten rock progressions, that the whole explodes, sending the tune into the stratosphere. It's the perfect closer for a smoking record.

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