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Music Review: The Skatalites – Stretching Out

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ROIR Records has just re-released some excellent live and historic Skatalites music on CD, LP, and digital download, which was previously only available on cassette.  Stretching Out, from 1983, is historically significant because it is from the year when the band had just reconciled the differences that had driven their 2-year career apart in 1965.  Peter Tosh’s manager, Herbie Miller tracked them all down to play at the 1983 Jamaica Sunplash.  Prior to the big gig, the band got together for some rehearsal nightclub gigs at Miller’s Blue Monk Jazz Gallery in Kingston before a crowd of local fans, friends, and fellow musicians.  There were no restrictions on the length of their sets, no barriers on soloing, and no boundaries in general… which led to a stretched out, spontaneously joyful Ska reunion.

You can feel the small-room vibe of the club in the recordings and you can almost smell the ganga smoke and feel the heat and the sweat created by those in attendance, who were most likely moved by the endless backbeat skank to dance the night away.  The Skatalites are a large group of players (9 of them, with 3 guests) whose playing is as smooth as cocoa butter over the 2 hours.  There never seems to be any confusion as to who is soloing and when the band comes back in; this is a group of musicians who fully support each other.  And the results make it all sound so easy, as the best musicians do.  The band cooks its way through classics like “Guns of Navarone”, “Confucius”, and “Lee Harvey Oswald” and flow like melting moonlight over stretched out numbers like “Black Sunday” and “Ska Ba”.

The Skatalites horn blowers are stunning throughout. They were clearly inspired by the bebop players (like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker) and the musical freedom and boundary-bursting those players pioneered.  And the Skatalites, in turn, helped pioneer the sound that would later morph into rock steady and reggae.  Unfortunately, all but one (Lester Sterling-alto sax, who still blows with the band) of that original horn section has joined that big band in the sky, with the passing of Johnny “Dizzy” Moore in August of this year.  But the music certainly lives on and the live music on Stretching Out is just about as lively as it gets!

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