A reggae retrofit


The genre, birthed from a Jamaican take on R&B and jazz during the island’s struggle for independence from England in the late 1950s and early ’60s, went through endless permutations, including an American renaissance a few decades back. It eventually gave rise to a hardy underground scene in the States that disintegrated under the weight of its own promise. But its ultimate destruction enabled a handful of players to ply skills they’d picked up from a decade’s worth of touring in a broad spectrum of new bands.

For O’Sullivan, who hit the road and recorded with such 1990s stalwarts as the Scofflaws and the Toasters, that meant becoming a permanent fixture of the Easy Star All-Stars, a reggae supergroup focused on recasting classic rock albums in an island style.

“People play music for many different reasons. And it’s like a journey; it’s a calling and you have to do it.” O’Sullivan said, contrasting his time in earlier ska troupes with his current gig in Easy Star. “Sometimes, I’ll say, it’s more like church. And that comes from a leader we had named Ras I-Ray. He would sort of pray before each show.”

Transitioning from ska’s bouncy secularism to reggae’s reverent rhythms wasn’t a huge musical stretch for O’Sullivan, who said he got turned on to Jamaican styles by a friend in college. Everything from the Skatalites — arguably the genre’s progenitors — to British strains bolstered by a punky attitude have contributed to his work, enabling the trombonist to play on recordings well beyond ska and reggae. Last year, he added a bit to Pharrell Williams’ “GIRL.” But singers born and raised in Jamaica who contributed to Easy Star’s covers albums had more cultural negotiations to deal with.

“I think some of the artists weren’t all that familiar with the Pink Floyd stuff,” O’Sullivan said about recording Easy Star’s “Dub Side of the Moon,” the ensemble’s interpretation of the British psych band’s 1973 album. “When Michael [Goldwasser, Easy Star’s arranger] was producing them, and got into the lyrics, he had to do some things with them. … It was just a melding of cultures.”

That sort of synthesis, though, didn’t initially dawn on anyone who’s performed with Easy Star during its decade-long run. Instead, Lem Oppenheimer, chief operating officer at Easy Star Records, was just walking around New York, trying to hock the label’s early singles to area record stores when the idea to work up a reggafied version of the Floyd disc occurred to him.

“We sort of developed it at that point and brought in Michael Goldwasser, who produced the record and did all the arrangements,” said Oppenheimer, now a Charlottesville resident. “Reggae music has a long history of doing interesting cover songs. Up to us doing a whole record, no one had tried to do that. For us, we wanted to find ways to attract a larger crossover audience without watering down the music.”

Putting the band together and gaining the rights to Floyd’s music took a bit of work, and Oppenheimer said the endeavor necessitated leveraging some credit cards. But after “Dub Side of the Moon” was released, the response prompted all involved to set out on another covers project; reimagining a Radiohead disc. Then a Beatles’ classic. And eventually moving on to reassess Michael Jackson.

“It’s an interesting group and over the years it seems like more of a collective centered around decisions about what albums to do made by me and my partners,” Oppenheimer said. “The live band has been a huge part of it and assembles from really different sides of [Jamaican music].”

O’Sullivan, part of a crew that includes players who’ve worked in everything from hip-hop to jazz and endless iterations of Jamaican music, agreed and stressed that working within the strictures of other people’s songs and arrangements still allowed a significant range of free motion.

“The live band has really created its own flavor, the way we play as a unit,” he said about Easy Star’s current set, drawing from each of its covers collections. “So there’s a lot of personal chemistry that goes into playing these songs. It’s not just watching a cover band. It’s watching people who’ve been doing this show for a long time. … It becomes its own animal.”

Along with the spate of covers Easy Star’s worked up, the band has written and released a handful of original compositions, something O’Sullivan said would continue with redoubled vigor in the future. Among selections from the troupe’s 2011 “First Light,” its first full-length effort of original music, influences from the ’60s heyday of Doreen Shaffer crooning atop Skatalites jazzy tunes immediately are evident. Of course, it’s all been slowed down, enabling Easy Star to engage a completely different kind of audience.

While the ska boom’s spoils long since have dissipated and the likelihood of reggae music hitting the charts in the States seems slim, the music has left an indelible mark. And the Easy Star All-Stars seem determined to continue pushing ahead, dusting off well-worn hits to enliven not just the original compositions, but a genre of music that occasionally gets short shrift in popular culture.

For the original report go to www.dailyprogress.com/entertainment/a-reggae-retrofit/article_e8d01c12-ef83-11e4-b58f-7bb8c8fe1e0e.html

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