May 02

Top Ranking – The Genius Of Soul Jazz

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As it happens the records do more than that – they make the songs talk to each other. Listening to 300% Dynamite! (my first volume) was an education. The problem I’d had with other ‘reggae’ compilations – the apparent uniformity of the basic rhythmic structure – vanished. Here a scuffling and kicking ska track (“Broadway Jungle”) sat next to Wayne Smith’s genre-busting Dancehall pioneer “Under Me Sleng Teng”, skankified versions of TV themes and soul hits, Shark Wilson’s funk-derived “Make It Reggae”, Johnny Clarke’s conscious “Rebel Soldiering”, and Lloyd Price’s “Coconut Woman”, comical knockabout calypso which seemed beamed out of a different century in such company. I could appreciate what tracks had in common without ever being overwhelmed by it, and I could appreciate the glorious touches that made each track special. A history unfolded: those guitar stabs on “Rebel Soldiering”, they surely called back to Prince Buster’s on-point ska precision? And even Lloyd Price, with his mid-track switch into hollering and sprayed glottals, could point towards expressive, consonant-heavy ragga vocalising.

The conversation continues between volumes. 200% features Tenor Fly’s taunting, trilling “Raise The Alarm” (a handy reminder that sound-system rivalry is what drives Jamaican music forward) – then 400% has “Raise The Alarm Quick”, Buju Banton’s cocksure talkover of the original tune. But 300% tips you off that ‘original’ in Jamaica is a loose word, with “Under Mi Sleng Teng”, which “Raise The Alarm” clearly borrows from, just like Wayne Smith’s track borrows from “Under Mi Sensi”, a tune on 400%. Actually I’ve no idea who’s borrowing from who – because the Dynamite series while sumptuously packaged is very short on solid track information. One of its few flaws, that – and even then it adds to the just-dive-in party spirit of the series. Back on 300%, meanwhile, you’re listening to “Uptown Top Ranking” – there’s always one or two well-known classics on each volume – and when you hear 500% you get an introduction to the way Jamaican music mixes and matches riddims, with Marcia Aitken’s “I’m Still In Love”, as woeful and thoughtful as Althea and Donna are what-the-hell confident.

The Dynamite series wears its history lightly, though – these are pop records first and foremost, ready for the dance (I bought 300% after a DJ played it pretty much in full on a night out – I’d never heard “Sleng Teng” before and I couldn’t get it out of my head for days!). The first two records in the series are slightly hesitant – with more emphasis on soul and funk influences, lots of chilled instrumentals and crowd-pleasing dubs. The third is more eclectic, and the fifth is the most up-to-date, with a higher dancehall quotient and current names like Bounty Killer and Red Rat turning up – but Soul Jazz’ modern selections seem a bit lacklustre next to the fierce contemporary cuts you find on recent Greensleeves samplers.

Every CD in the series has some perfect selections and they’re all well worth your money, but the real jaw-dropper is 400% Dynamite – fifteen tracks, most of them devastating, full of good times and surprises. Demented exhuberance – whooping and bird-calls on Bongo Herman’s “Chairman Of The Board”; the giggling boy-hyaena backing vox on General Degree’s “Pot Cover” – meets poker-faced rude boy cool – Honey Boy Martin’s shiversome “Dreader Than Dread”. “Ring The Alarm Quick” and “Under Me Sensi” mix sweetness and swagger. Prince Buster’s “Girl, Why Don’t You Answer?” does heartbreak and anger as convincingly as any soul singer, with a monster squeal-along hook for good measure. And The Cimarons’ pop-ska protest-stomp “We Are Not The Same” is just explosive – a hotstepping string arrangement wedded to a howling high-register vocal. (I think you’re more likely to hear a great vocal on a random Jamaican record than on one from anywhere else.)

The one let-down is that there are only five of them – and 500% Dynamite came out a while ago, so perhaps Soul Jazz feel the format’s getting tired. A shame if so, but they’ve already turned my appreciation of Jamaican music right around, finally opening a door I’d always known was there but couldn’t ever find the key to. (I’ve even bought a dub record!) I’m sure that there’s a surprise or two on these CDs even for people who are big reggae fans, but for anyone who isn’t and wants to know more it’s the most entertaining crash course you’ll ever attend: unreservedly recommended. And if anyone from Soul Jazz ever happens to read this – thank you.


  1. 1
    Сandy on 12 Jan 2007 #

    Hi!I am trying to find out the artist for a “scat” type jazz song on an old old christmas collection (“voices of christmas” in the “voices of Walter Schumann” series). The song is entitled, “Christmas Gift” and the guy’s voice sounds familiar; I’m sure it’s someone fairly famous for his time. Anyway no year listed on the album, but it is marked “RCA Victor LPM 1141” and on the ablum it says the song was composed by “jester hairston, well-known negro choral director and arranger”. the album is likely from the 40’s or 50’s (it used ‘new orthphonic high fidelity recording’)Anyway, can you help me in terms of how to fin out who the performer was on this song for this album?

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