Since 1964, when he arranged Millie Smalls' "My Boy Lollipop" and thus produced the biggest-selling ska record ever (and the first Jamaican U.K.-chart topper), guitarist Ernest Ranglin has been at the forefront of both pushing Jamaican music's envelope and widening its audience. On 1996's Below The Bassline, he introduced the ska revivalists to Jamaican jazz; with 1998's brilliant In Search of the Lost Riddim, he combed Senegalese music for the roots of his own sounds -- and found them. Now Ranglin stands next to a fellow Jamaican jazz master, pianist Monty Alexander, to produce one of the best recordings of ska, rocksteady and reggae in a jazz setting yet. (Better by far than Alexander's previous attempts, such as 2001's Goin' Yard.)
The reason being that Ranglin's jazz sensibilities -- the "cool" of a Wes Montgomery or Kenny Burrell -- are tempered by almost 50 years of his simultaneous work on riddim-based music. So while the guitarist at times lays down smooth background chords and a jazz-spiral solo on Ken Boothe's "Freedom Street," he can also pluck out the bass-riding picking of classic rocksteady. (A fashion made standard by Ranglin's primary Jamaican-guitar rival, Lynn Taitt.) Ranglin's rhythmic know-how rubs off in the studio on the far more lounge-prone Alexander. Behind guest Toots Hibbert on "Pressure Drop," Alexander drops hints of the New Orleans styles that inspired early ska; on melodica for Augustus Pablo's "East of the River Nile," the pianist manages to some of the most wide-open music of his career, a track that could bring herbs back to the jazz club.
There's still some funny business here: "Stalag 17," the cut that provided a prototype for the "Ring the Alarm" riddim used by just about all dancehall reggae in the '80s, sounds more like cocktail hour than would seem possible, and the lite-FM-jazz noodling of "Redemption Song" is just plain sad. But overall, Rocksteady makes a nice -- if largely peripheral -- addition to the JA-jazz canon of Don Drummond, Rico Rodriguez, Tommy McCook and others.