Tommy McCook - Reggae In Jazz

Grass Roots
Caution
Sin
Wild Bunch
Bam Bam
Black Out
Collin' 1
Collin' 2
Bad Man
Good Bye
Rock Away
War
Beirut
Beirut Version

Jazz has a long history in Jamaica and among Jamaican diaspora musicians. That history stretches from the all-Caribbean band assembled by Leslie Thompson in London in the mid-1930s - which included Jamaican-born sidemen like saxophonist and graduate of Alpha Boys School in Kingston Bertie King, alongside fellow Jamaicans like alto saxophonist and clarinetist Louis Stephenson, saxophonist Joe Appleton, trumpeter Leslie 'Jiver' Hutchinson and pianist Yorke de Souza - right through to today's players like the superb veteran guitarist Ernest Ranglin, the consummate pianist Monty Alexander and the younger set of musicians who make up the celebrated band Jazz Jamaica. Moreover, so many Jamaican musicians have been inspired by jazz even if the music they made was firmly in the reggae genre. As late as the 1970s roots musicians like the melodica/keyboard player Augustus Pablo and the gifted guitarist Earl 'Chinna' Smith cited jazz as inspiration and legendary dub engineer King Tubby was a massive fan of jazz. Back in Jamaica, during the early 1940s and immediately following World War Two, there was a vibrant swing-jazz scene, with Eric Dean's Orchestra one of the most popular outfits. It was in this milieu that Tommy McCook (born Havana, Cuba 1927) began his long career. Tommy's mother had worked at the Bournemouth Club, a notable jazz haunt in Kingston; she sent young Tommy to the world-renowned Alpha Boys School when he was 11 years old. There he received musical instruction, learning reed instruments and flute. When he was 16, Tommy joined Eric Dean's Orchestra, from there he worked with bands led by Don Htchman and Roy Coburn; in 1954, Tommy relocated to the Bahamas, not returning to Kingston until 1962. Unlike his contemporaries at Alpha, such as Joe Harriott, Alphonso 'Dizzy' Reece or Wilton 'Bogey' Gaynair, he chose not to seek employment as a musician outside Jamaica. His services were soon requested by leading sound system owner Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd.

Dodd, ever mindful of his competitors in the sound system scene, asked him to join and lead an all-star band the producer was assembling. Eventually, Tommy joined; according to accounts of the key protagonists, it was Tommy who christened the band 'Skatalites'. Between 1964 and 1965 the band recorded extensively for Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Lloyd Daley, Leslie Kong, Vincent Chin and Justin Yap. After trombonist Don Drummond's arrest and incarceration for the murder of his girlfriend, Tommy moved on to the studio of Arthur 'Duke' Reid, where he fronted the Supersonics. As the Skatalites had been to ska, this group in turn became the defining instrumental voice of rock steady.

Rock steady itself was a short-live style in Jamaican music; the earlier forms of reggae which succeeded rock steady emphasized the rhythm and the rhythm section almost exclusively; it wasn't until the advent of the slower 'one-drop' style that horn sections again became popular. reggae producers who dominated or came to prominence in the 1970s, including such as Edward 'Bunny' Lee, Rupie Edwards, Vivian 'Yabby You' Jackson, Jo Jo Hookim and Glenmore Brown all used horn sections in their productions of the time. After his 1960s heyday, Tommy hooked up with trumpeter Bobby Ellis, along with alto saxophonist and former Treasure Isle band mate Herman Marquis, to supply horn lines on a significant number of 1970s reggae sessions. In the process, he worked with all of the producers mentioned above (and many more) supplying the crisp horn lines to sides without number, as key member of various session bands like the Revolutionaries, Aggrovators, Mercenaries and other studio groups. He also laid down several instrumental sets under his own name (or in tandem with trumpeter Bobby Ellis) for Lee Edwards, Jackson and Brown, and most pertinently in connection with the current set called 'Green Mango', released by Trojan Records in the UK in 1974; the following year brother Buster recorded 'Reggae In Jazz', which eventually saw belated and limited release on the late Dennis Harris' imprint 'Eve' Records in 1976.

Buster Riley was born Stanley Leopold Riley on 27th January 1947 in Kingston, the fourth child of Mortimer and Ruby Riley. He was given the pet name 'Buster' because of his father's love for former Jamaican political leader and Prime Minister, Sir Alexander Bustamente. Like his more celebrated brother Winston, he started out in music as member of a vocal group. Winston had founded the Techniques; Buster was for a time a member of the Sensations, the group founded by Martin 'Jimmy' Riley (no relation), along with other members Cornell Campbell and Aaron 'Dego' Davis. When the Sensations disbanded, Buster followed his brother into production, it was he who gave Dave Barker the 'vibe' to come up with the unforgettable "I... am the magnificent... double o-o"  introduction for the massive hit 'Double Barrel' at Joe Gibbs old studio in Burns Avenue, Duhaney Park, Kingston. According to Winston and Buster's sister Beverley Riley, the relationship between the brothers was "Complex; they argue a lot but if either was in trouble they would then come to each other for assistance". Fairly typical of many siblings.

Buster started his own label - 'Mummy' - circa 1975, issuing 7" & 12" 45 rpm sides by Jackie Paris, Keble Drummond, Earth & Stone, Lincoln Grant, Marvin Brooks, Hopeton Lewis and Sil Bell, as well as a solitary dub album and the 'Back To Africa' set featuring Phillip Frazer and Earth & Stone from 1978. The only other album produced by Buster is this current Tommy McCook reissue, on which the master saxophonist deploys his hard-edged sound over a variety of cuts, including a couple of entertaining forays into 'funky' reggae, and a nice tenor sax excursion over the Techniques' 'Man Of My World' rhythm. The original album also included a brace of organ instrumentals and a pair of melodica instrumentals, one of which was originally issued as the 45 'Black Out' on the Riley's label and reissued - by Winston - on Techniques in the 1990s.

The connection with jazz is none too clear. As is often the case with Jamaican music while jazz is often the jumping off point, what we have on this album is essentially a set of reggae instrumentals, a genre that sadly seems to have died out over thirty years ago, around the beginning of the 1980s. It's unlikely that 'Reggae In Jazz' was recorded as a 'whole' album. more likely there were a few sessions where the core of the album was recorded and then tracks were added to stitch together an album. Tracks and rhythms like 'Black Out' were borrowed from Winston Riley in order to make up enough tracks for a saleable album. Given the financial overheads of recording new tracks from the beginning it is likely that tracks were begged or borrowed from brother Winston and wherever else rhythm tracks could be sourced. Tommy McCook would then have added his arrangements and blown over the tracks that Buster had been able to source. Notwithstanding this piecemeal approach, the better core tracks - such as 'Grass Roots', 'Wild Bunch' - have more in keeping with the jazz-infused instrumentals from an earlier period. There is a level of musical dexterity and care gone into production that confirms buster was both a capable and imaginative producer. Tommy McCook was an excellent musician and arranger and could be relied upon to deliver enough quality to give Reggae In Jazz a coherent and unified feeling that enhances McCook's proven abilities.

For the CD, we have added 'Beirut, an instrumental and dub version recorded at Channel One studio in 1976 by the Riley session group the Mercenaries.

As for the producer Buster Riley, he too faded from the music scene around that time, although his brother Winston continued on his path as one of the most successful reggae producers of all, a hitmaker from the 1960s until the 21st century. Buster Riley died on 19th April 2011, succumbing to cancer; tragically, Winston died 19th January 2012, having been in a coma since being shot in the head at his home in November 2011. His son Kurt remains active in the Jamaican music scene today.

Tommy McCook enjoyed further success when the Skatalites reformed in 1983, following a series of gigs at the Blue Monk Jazz Gallery in Kingston in 1983. This led on to live dates in New York City and ultimately, to a new record contract with Chris Blackwell's Island Records. In 1984 that company released the LP 'The Return Of The Big Guns' and the group played to a rapturous reception at the London Sunsplash that year. they also cut a live LP at the original Jamaican Sunsplash. McCook and the Skatalites toured the world - as they should have done in the 1960s, if things had been different. They did record more albums, principally for Shanachie Records in the USA; Tommy made a couple of sets for US revival-ska labels Moonska and Stubborn. Tommy McCook died May 5th 1988 Atlanta USA of pneumonia and heart failure. His legacy - that of a great Jamaican hornsmen, manifested in this reissue - lives on in the music he created and recorded in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Steve Barrow - August 2013

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