London felt like an oven as I made my way to the South Bank to watch Gary Crosby’s augmented Jazz Jamaica celebrate the 40th anniversary of Catch A Fire last night. It reminded me of the evening of September 20, 1972, when I landed at Palisadoes Airport in Kingston, Jamaica and experienced Caribbean heat for the first time, about to discover the way it transports you into a different reality.
Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, whom I had not met before, picked me up at the terminal in a Mini Moke, which also contained the American photographer Lynn Goldsmith. We drove along the Palisadoes, the long spit of land than encloses Kingston Harbour, to Port Royal, the old pirate headquarters — or what was left of it by the earthquakes of 1692 and 1907. It was quiet, and it was hot, and we got out of the Moke by the seafront, where goats were settling down for the night and men were selling fish from glass-fronted wooden cases. Blackwell bought us each a piece of fried snapper and a can of cold Red Stripe from a bar made out of corrugated iron sheets. It seemed like heaven
The following day we went to Dynamic Sound studios, where Toots and the Maytals were trying to record “Tumbling Dice”, a task only marginally impeded by the fact that Toots didn’t know the words and was making them up as he went along. This gave me the chance to witness one of the great rhythm sections at work: Hucks Brown (guitar), Gladstone Anderson (piano), Winston Wright (organ), Jackie Jackson (bass) and Winston Grennan (drums), each of them doing exactly what you hoped he’d do. Particularly Hucks Brown, playing those unique little stuttering, flickering single-string fills that had distinguished Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” a few months earlier.
I was shown around Trenchtown the next morning by Joe Higgs, the singer who had mentored the young Wailers, teaching them how to sing harmony. Joe was an older man, a calm, charming, deep-voiced Rasta. He gave me a copy of his new 45, “Let Us Do Something”, and took me to Bob’s Tuff Gong record shack at 127 King Street, one block across from Orange Street, where I bought copies of the Wailers’ “Trenchtown Rock” and their latest release, “Satisfy My Soul Jah Jah”. That afternoon Blackwell and I went to Half Way Tree, where he had an appointment at the Aquarius record store with Herman Chin Loy, a young producer, who played us some pretty wild acetates on which he wanted to make a deal; they may have been the ones that surfaced the following year on the first of his Aquarian Dub LPs.
That evening we met up with Harry Johnson — the famous Harry J — who removed a Smith & Wesson from the glove compartment of his Oldsmobile and placed it in a shoulder holster concealed by his lightweight jacket before ushering took us to his studio on Roosevelt Avenue. I remember it as a bungalow surrounded by lawn and trees. Inside, amid a thick fug of ganja, were Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingstone, Aston Barrett and Carlton Barrett, laying down the track of “Slave Driver”, whose lyric would provide the title for Catch A Fire.
I knew about the Wailers. Back in 1966 I’d bought two of their early singles, “Put It On” and “He Who Feels It Knows It”, on the old Island white label. I loved the songs, the rhythms and, most of all, the harmonies. But this was a quite different sort of experience: thanks to the Barrett brothers (my second great rhythm section in two days), the music had a dark churn of a kind I’d never heard before, somehow lazy and energised at the same time. The vocals were equally stunning: Marley’s lead was mesmerising, the harmony work piercingly gorgeous.
Blackwell had done something unprecedented in the annals of Jamaican music. At a time when musicians sold the rights to their singles for 25 Jamaican dollars, he had advanced the Wailers several thousand pounds in order to make an album, bringing the economics of production and promotion developed in rock music to the world of reggae. And this was his first exposure to the result of what most people in the Jamaican music business saw as an outrageous and hopeless gamble. But Blackwell was always a talented gambler, and almost as soon as he walked through the studio door he knew that this one had come off.
The quickest and simplest way of explaining the effect of all this on me is to say that when I got home, a couple of days later, I sat down to write a piece suggesting that in Bob Marley, Jamaica had a musician whose effect might one day be comparable to that of Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield. Not wrong there. Catch A Fire came out six months later, in its strikingly ingenious (and expensive) Zippo cover, beginning the process that, within three years, turned Marley into an international superstar and cultural symbol and made reggae into an wordwide lingua franca.
That’s a long way of getting round to talking about last night’s gig at the Festival Hall, but it might help to explain why I found it so moving when the 21-member Jazz Jamaica All Stars, the 12-piece Urban Soul string ensemble, the 240-person Voicelab choir, the conductor Kevin Robinson, the choirmaster Mark De Lisser and the singer-guitarist Brinsley Forde launched into “No More Trouble”. In that moment, in that song’s combination of baleful cadences and stare-down optimism, the summoning of musical and spiritual powers was at its most intense: spine-tingling at the start, overwhelming by the finish.
They played the album all the way through, Jason Yarde’s arrangements making use of all the available resources: the strings on Tosh’s “Stop That Train”, an acapella coda for the three female backing singers (Zara MacFarlane, Keisha Downie and Rasiyah) on “Baby, Baby We’ve Got a Date”, the best guitar solo I’ve heard this year from Robin Banerjee on “Concrete Jungle”, a fine Latin piano solo from Ben Burrell on “Midnight Ravers”, a rousing violin duel between Stephen Hussey and Miles Brett on “Stir It Up”, the tenor saxophone of Denys Baptiste and the trumpet of Yazz Ahmed swapping phrases on another Tosh song, “400 Years”. And the other great solo of the night, by the tenorist Patrick Clahar, on “No More Trouble”.
They finished with three songs from Marley’s later repertoire: “One Love”, “Redemption Song” — sung by Brinsley Forde with just the strings for company — and “Lively Up Yourself”. Brinsley deserves the highest praise for a performance in which he evoked the spirit of the great man without exaggeration and without pushing himself forward, becoming just another member of a unique and hugely life-affirming organism. Quite a night.