If you believe ska has become synonymous with frat boys blatting on trombones, for the most part you’re right. But Hepcat, a multiracial nine-piece band from southern California, leapfrogs over the syncopated thrash of its ska-punk contemporaries into the soothing waters of the Caribbean, reconnecting ska with its roots in jazz, mento, and R & B. As a boy, vocalist Greg Lee was introduced to Jamaican music through his father, a recording engineer at Alabama’s famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios; as teenagers he and keyboard player Deston Berry decided they liked the vintage ska records being played over the PA at shows better than the ska-punk bands that were performing live. For years Hepcat’s purism and shifting lineup made it the best-kept secret on the west coast, but a spot on last year’s Warped Tour brought the band its first national exposure, and its new album, Right on Time (Hellcat/Epitaph), places it alongside Jump With Joey and the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble as one of the best young ska acts in the country. Saxophonists Efren Santana and Paul Talavera deliver the sort of cool, moody voicings that call to mind the Skatalites’ best work, while Kincaid Smith’s urbane trumpet solos elevate the brisk “I Can’t Wait” and the instrumental “Pharaoh’s Dreams.” Lee shares the vocals with soulful Alex Desert (who played Charles in the film Swingers), and their harmonies are a dreamy blend of calypso and doo-wop. Unlike its Jamaican forebears, Hepcat doesn’t have much of a political agenda–on its previous album, the tune “Anita Hill” was less a topical reference than a tip of the hat to the Skatalites’ “Christine Keeler”–but in the brilliance of its sun-washed sound, all borders melt away. Friday, 6:30 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 773-549-0203. J.R. JONES
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.