Jackie Mittoo & the Soul Brothers

Last Train to Skaville

(Soul Jazz)

Cedric “Im” Brooks & the Light of Saba

The Light of Saba

(Honest Jons/Astralwerks)

Jazz purists often couch their arguments in terms of authenticity. Marriages between jazz and other genres are by definition suspect, the argument that jazz itself is a bastard music notwithstanding, and the jazz-rock fusion of the 1970s is usually cited as prosecution Exhibit A. For Stanley Crouch, one of the most prominent jazz purists, such unions are frequently racially tainted. Earlier this year he incited a mini dustup–something, it should be said, he’s done more than once in the course of his career–by suggesting that the hype attending the jazz-rock group the Bad Plus was in large part due to the trio’s skin color. Not to mention that of the A and R men who signed them and the critics who gave them good reviews.

To my ears the Bad Plus aren’t much to get excited about one way or the other. Their cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” doesn’t have the energy of the original, but it’s not objectionable. They’re by no means the most imaginative fusion group around, but they don’t belong in the hall of shame with Spyro Gyra or the Yellowjackets. On the other hand, the blandness of their work is enough to suggest that the purists raise a valid question: can the whole really be more than the sum of its parts if one of those parts is jazz?

Sure it can. Two recent reissues on British labels should give hope to everyone ever disappointed by Weather Report. On the evidence of these discs Jamaica in the 1960s and ’70s was a place where fusion–defined for the sake of argument as a simultaneous mastery of multiple genre forms and indifference to genre boundaries–had reached an acme. The incredible fertility of the Jamaican music scene is not exactly a secret, but a cursory familiarity with the island’s output didn’t prepare me for Last Train to Skaville. A compilation of 45s originally recorded between 1965 and 1967, featuring the top homegrown musicians of the era, it’s wildly eclectic. Rocksteady rhythms rub shoulders with Latin beats, the horn section plays an abbreviated melodic form of jazz, a cover of “From Russia With Love” is followed by a ska tune that owes a lot to the Ventures. In fact, in the fading moments of “Ska-culation” the guitarist launches into a straight-up surf-guitar riff, like a tribute or a clue.

Last Train could, as the liner notes admit, just as easily have been credited to Roland Alphonso & the Soul Brothers or simply the Soul Brothers. Alphonso, on sax, Mittoo, on keyboards, and other members of the group were ex-members of the pioneering Skatalites and served as the first house band of Kingston’s famed Studio One. The Soul Brothers formed immediately after the Skatalites broke up. They functioned as a collective; if they had a leader it was arguably producer Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd. Though his name’s on the cover, Mittoo’s keyboards are highlighted on just a few tracks, like “Home Made” and “Take Ten,” and his gravelly vocals appear only on “Got My Boogaloo,” which he cowrote. But thanks to previous reissues, he has more name recognition than his bandmates in the States.

The horns are very much the melodic force here, and they turn in sophisticated, perfectly structured little solos on track after track. The drums and saxes of “Voodoo Moon” sound like Moondog, while “Mr. Flint” and “Sufferer’s Choice” are more directly ska-influenced and geared to dancing. “Chicken and Booze” is brass band-influenced, funky, noirish jazz. Since the songs originally appeared on separate releases, the juxtapositions can’t be read back into the past; but the diversity of styles within each song sounds radical now, and these radical sounds were the popular music of their time.

Cedric “Im” Brooks & the Light of Saba are something else. Brooks, from the Denham Town neighborhood of Kingston, was steeped in traditional jazz from a young age, then exposed to Ethiopian music and the “out” jazz of Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. In 1968 he moved to Philadelphia, where he met and was influenced by Sonny Rollins and especially Sun Ra. Returning home in the early 1970s, he combined Ra’s influence, both musical and spiritual, with Rastafarianism and reggae, Jamaican folk and brass band traditions, calypso, funk, Fela, and even disco. By this time genre hybrids were less popular on the island; Brooks and his collaborators had to play straighter jazz gigs to stay afloat, and Brooks says the economic burden was such that it almost gave him a nervous breakdown. Reggae and jazz don’t always mix well, but on tracks like “Sabasi,” with free trombone and sax solos over a heavy repetitious bass vamp, or “Rebirth,” where horns and flute play call-and-response over a circular reggae chug, the fusion doesn’t sound forced. Drums, bass, and horns come together in a spacey groove that is indeed reminiscent of the Arkestra, and there’s a nice cover of Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father.”

There aren’t many critics who’d dare claim that the Soul Brothers or Cedric Brooks weren’t authentically Jamaican, but jazz purists might still be loath to acknowledge the jazz elements. It’s not just Crouch, and it’s not even just the jazz microcosm–a lot of what passes for music criticism, both in print and in bars, consists of arguments about authenticity. Critics this year took a big step by admitting that Justin Timberlake can sing pretty good R & B for a white guy, but for a whole subset of writers the question of whether the Strokes are any good is still secondary to the investigation of whether they’re a “real” New York band. Realness is an infinitely tricky concept–can we say the Shins are real when one of their songs has already been in a McDonald’s ad? Are white jazz musicians or rappers, even those who’re clearly competent, inherently purveying a watered-down or invalid version of what their African-American counterparts produce? How about middle- and upper-class folks from northern cities who like to sing and play country music?

Part of the problem is that realness has as much to do with music’s formal qualities–vocal inflections, phrasing, the interactions of the different musicians in a band, the relative placement of elements in a mix, distortion, even stage presence–as it does with who’s making the music and how and where they grew up. But popular music criticism too often bypasses the discussion of form, obsessed as it is with connecting everything to the culture at large. The emphasis is often misplaced: Are the Bad Plus mediocre because they’re young white men with a major label backing them? Light of Saba and Last Train to Skaville certainly aren’t good simply because they’re Jamaican. (There’s plenty of shitty Jamaican music out there.) When your drinking buddy says a recording, a band, or an artist is real, isn’t he talking as much about how the music comes across, which has everything to do with its formal qualities, as he is about the musicians’ biographies?

Talking about form doesn’t have to mean getting stultifyingly technical–every critic’s hero Lester Bangs managed to write at length on music without knowing a lot about how to play the stuff. But it does put the focus where it belongs–on the music and the listener’s gut reaction to it. There’s still plenty of room for the larger cultural questions, but facile equations like black = authentic and white = fake have no place therein.

The Sun Ra Singles set on Evidence several years ago revealed how the far-out Ra saw fit to dabble continually in the pop realm. More of his vocal-group experiments are now available on the Unheard Music Series’s Spaceship Lullaby. Ra was so sui generis that it’s hard to draw any broader conclusions about the fusion of jazz and popular music, but listening to those discs along with Cedric Brooks and the Soul Brothers, it’s impossible not to realize that the impulse to combine jazz with other forms is, if not universal, certainly not confined to mediocrities like the Bad Plus. Nor to white people. Nor, thankfully, to those who labor on fringes and achieve little commercial success.

When it comes to popular music, art and commerce (realness and fakery, if you like) are notoriously entwined. The superb music on Last Train to Skaville and The Light of Saba was a complex product born of individuals’ visions and talents, producers’ goals, audience demands, and economic exigencies. Of the Jamaican scene in the late 1960s, musician and producer Derrick Harriott had this to say to Lloyd Bradley in the latter’s authoritative This Is Reggae Music: “This new soul music–with the Motown thing as well–was having such an effect in Jamaica…everybody was doing a lot of cover versions. And it was working…everybody back then could play, proper musicians who had been formally trained, and the songs written were classically structured.” Professional musicians playing the popular music of the time picked up on fashionable new sounds imported from the U.S. and producers capitalized on the trend. Doesn’t sound so authentic now, does it? But commercial concerns didn’t, and don’t, make those sounds less real.