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(Above: Reggae pioneers the Skatalites pay tribute to Dave Brubeck, and prove that it is possible to skank to jazz.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The original run of the Skatalites lasted barely over a year. That brief window has proved to be more than enough time to build a legacy strong to survive nearly half a century later.

The music the seven-piece island band played for two hours at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club on Thursday night transformed the sound of Jamaican music, but has deep tentacles into many forms of American music, including jazz, doo wop, R&B, gospel and even country.

The band never tried to hide its influences. “Music is My Occupation” reappropriated the horn line from “Ring of Fire.” Next, on their version of the James Bond theme, the famous surf guitar was transferred to a punchy horn line. The arrangement inspired more dancing than danger. Think of it as the soundtrack to the scene after the big fight, when 007 waltzes away with the girl.

Three horns lined the front of the stage, proclaiming the band’s strength. Founding member Lester Sterling played an old saxophone that looked like it had been rescued from a shipwreck but never failed to summon a melody pure and true. The big rhythm section included keyboards and guitar. They players may have been hidden behind the brass, but never played second fiddle.

The band had no problem moving the tricky 5/4 time of Dave Brubeck’s signature “Take Five” to a ska beat. Originally recorded with Val Bennett as “The Russians are Coming,” the piece featured Sterling’s longest solo of the night and proved he could hang with the players in the Blue Room any night.

When Sterling wanted to show off ska’s versatility, he launched the band into a cover of “I Should Have Known Better.” The Beatles were contemporaries when the Skatalties first laid down their version. A cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” – courtesy of drummer Trevor Thompson – and the spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved” were the night’s only vocal moments.

The two-hour set was generous to a fault. While the room was packed for the first hour, there was plenty of elbow room when “The Guns of Navarone,” the band’s biggest song, finally emerged near the end. Most of the instrumentals employed a similar arrangement, allowing some sameness to eventually creep. The performances were always energetic, however, and kept a steady flow of dancing near the stage.

Purists can quibble over the lack of original members onstage and they’d have a point. Sterling is the only founding member, and almost half the band wasn’t born when the Skatalites were at their peak in Studio One. Blame Father Time for the attrition then ask if the music should be forced to pass along with its musicians.

Sterling put it another way between numbers: “When you’re good, you’re good.”

They’re good.

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(Above: The Night Tripper gets “Qualified” back in the day.)

By Joel Francis

While in Jacksonville, Fla. this past weekend for a wedding, I was able to sneak away from my duties as a groomsman long enough to check out the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. On Friday night I arrived in time to catch the last half of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s performance witht St. John’s River City Band. The local big band was well-prepared and sounded great, but their charts didn’t add much to the two songs I heard. “Blue Rondo a la Turk” was perfect the way Brubeck, Paul Desmond and company recorded it 50 years ago. It was interesting to hear the arrangement augmented with a battery of brass, but they certainly didn’t add anything new to the number.

The River City Band’s contribution to set closer “Take Five” fared better, if only because the structure of Brubeck’s signature song is more elastic. Brubeck has been required to end every night with this number for decades, yet he keeps finding new ways to interpret this song and keep it fresh.

Brubeck, who was supported by sax man Bobby Militello, drummer Randy Jones and his son Chris Brubeck on electric bass, reportedly played for about an hour, but we were lucky to even get that much. During his set, the conductor of the St. John’s River City Band announced that Brubeck had been hospitalized in March and put extra time in rehab to be in shape by May and fulfill his date in Jacksonville.

Dr. John took the stage after a short break. Backed by a guitar/bass/drums trio dubbed the Lower 911, his set was considerably louder but no less spirited that Brubeck’s. Opening with “Iko Iko,” John strolled through his catalog, treating the audience to “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Tipitina,” “Junco Man,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and several songs off his latest album, “The City that Care Forgot,” an angry diatribe against the government’s treatment of his native New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

As evidenced in the song listing above, John pulled heavily from his early ‘70s stint on Atlantic. The highlight of these tunes was “Qualified,” a lesser-heard, energetic album cut off “In the Right Place.”

Because of the perpetual heavy rains that have peppered Jacksonville for the better part of May, Friday night’s shows were delayed and pushed indoors to the Times-Union building. The facility has two stages; the auditorium Brubeck and John shared was about the size of Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College. Although the balcony was closed, the floor was packed, giving Brubeck a slightly larger audience than the one he played to in Kansas City last fall at the Folly Theater. John must have been pleased with the turnout, which was considerably larger than the crowds he usually plays to at the Beaumont Club.

The explanation for the crowd size lies in the Jacksonville Jazz Festival’s dirty little secret: it’s free. Although the festival featured names like Simone, Chris Botti, Stanley Clark, former Miles Davis drummer Jimmy Cobb, Roberta Flack and Bill Frissel scattered on four outdoor stages throughout downtown, the art, beverage and food vendors were the only people asking for money.

Their demographics don’t pefectly align, and Jacksonville’s metro population of 1.3 million makes it about a half a million people smaller than Kansas City. It is frustrating to see Kansas City unable to support and sustain paid events like the Rhythm and Ribs Festival and Spirt Festival while free shows like Jacksonville’s Jazz Festival flourish. What would it take to see a similar event take root and become an annual highlight in Kansas City? Perhaps we should pick some of Jacksonville’s brightest minds to find out.

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