The Skatalites are, without question, among the most legendary groups to ever emerge from musical hotbed of Kingston, Jamaica. Although the stunning original lineup- featuring legends like organist Jackie Mittoo, trombonist Don Drummond, and saxophone great Rolando Alphonso- lasted little more than a year, the band utterly defined the ska sound that would serve as the foundation for much of the Jamaican music that followed. In the meantime, its alumni stocked the studio bands that provided the island’s driving beat, playing with heavyweights like Desmond Dekker, Lee Perry, and Marley Himself. To put it another way? The Skatalites are THE ska group the way, say, Metallica is for heavy metal.
Yet at this point, that musical glory is far in the past. The band first reformed in the early 80’s, and by now, the reunion has gone on far longer then the group’s original tenure. As time went on, the band has also sported fewer and fewer original members, with musicians from younger generations pulled in to replace fallen veterans. While that might not seem like the most auspicious background for a new album, “Walk With Me” is, front to back, an unqualified pleasure of a listen.
Much of that pleasure comes from experience of hearing ska- traditional, first-wave ska- played this well. Compared to the punk-fueled intensity of the second (Specials, Madness) or third (Operation Ivy, No Doubt, et. all) waves, the best Jamaican ska stands out through it’s gentle swing, a soulful groove that mixes horn-filled cadences with an always present sense of restraint. The bands DON’T rip, and in many ways, that’s the point. The best tracks on “Walk With Me” (standouts include “Hot Flash,” “King Solomon,” and the title track itself) utterly nail this vibe, rolling seamlessly throughout their excellent arrangements, carried ahead by an inexorable momentum that’s seemingly effortless. It’s a great trick- the album pulls you along, and finishes in what seems like far less then its 40 minutes.
“Walk With Me” also stands out because of the simple joy of the incredibly high quality of the band’s musicians. Ska- much like reggae- is a fairly static music, and in the wrong hands, it can quickly degenerate into nothing more then the leaden repetition of endless upstrokes. The Skatalites are most assuredly not the wrong hands. Sure, it’s really only one groove, but there is a deep and subtle pleasure in hearing the endless variations possible within it. That- combined with the expert interplay between the musicians (a special mention should go to the excellent comping from guitarist Aurelien “Natty French” Metsch)- ensures that the record remains consistently interesting throughout. Admittedly, “Walk With Me” doesn’t break any new ground, never venturing further outside the band’s classic template then the mild dub of the closer “Dub Lalibela.” But at this point in the band’s career? It really doesn’t need to. Instead, we should enjoy “Walk With Me” for what it is- and hope that there’s more where it came from.