Thursday, November 12, 2020
Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Jah Jazz Orchestra "Introducing Jah Jazz Orchestra"
Comprised mainly of Swiss and French jazz musicians with a serious love of '60s-era Jamaican music, Jah Jazz Orchestra is a superb ensemble that is as equally comfortable playing ska, rocksteady, and reggae as they are jazz. Their Introducing Jah Jazz Orchestra (Vinyl LP/CD/digital, Brixton Records, 2020; available in the USA through Jump Up Records) is a magnificent debut, warmly and vibrantly recorded, and full of both '60s JA ska classics and well-chosen American jazz standards. Jah Jazz Orchestra's musicianship is off the charts (they make it all seem so effortless) and their improvisational skills are formidable. They're easily in the same league as Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (when TSPO is in a ska-jazz mood), Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra, NY Ska Jazz Ensemble, and Jump With Joey. Introducing Jah Jazz Orchestra opens with a terrific version of The Skatalites' "Ska La Parisienne" (which I was first introduced to back around 1989 at a Scofflaws gig)--and they also cover Lloyd Knibb's "King Solomon." Other highlights are a knockout take on Joe Henderson's "Black Narcissus," which is full-on jazz in its first several measures, until the rocksteady rhythm section kicks in, and the tune's incredible melody is explored by a variety of instruments. Dizzie Gillespie's pioneering Afro-Cuban jazz cut "Manteca" (co-written with Chano Pozo and Gil Fuller) is repurposed as "Manteska" and transformed into a breakneck speed ska track that keeps the original's wonderful shifts to jazz-lounge--of course, TSPO also recorded this for their live 2006 album Gunslingers (it's right up their alley). Jah Jazz Orchestra also cover Gillespie's "Tin Tin Deo" (composed by Chano Pozo and Gil Fuller), which I was first introduced to by TSPO (for better or worse, most of my knowledge of jazz standards has come through ska). Duke Ellington's "The Mystery Song" is recast as a fantastically slinky and sophisticated reggae-jazz cut. One of the most radical reimaginings is Jah Jazz Orchestra's cover of Fats Waller's "St. Louis Shuffle" (renamed "St. Louis Skank"), which they've turned into a sprightly skinhead reggae instrumental that would've made Jackie Mittoo proud. Without a doubt, this is one of the best ska records of 2020--one that I'll be revisiting many, many times.