1. Ernest Ranglin invented ska in the late 1950s, together with Coxsone Dodd and Cluett Johnson. Most people don’t know this but it’s true.
2. Ranglin was in charge of the music on the first international reggae smash, “My Boy Lollipop”, in the early 1960s. Nobody seems to care about this, but it’s true.
3. He has done jazz and reggae session work and solo albums ever since then, during which time he has perfected his craft to the point that he is very probably the best guitar player in the world. This is also true.
Despite all this, he has managed to stay off most people’s radar. This album, in a fair world, would re-establish him on an international stage. Hey, no one ever said this world was fair. But maybe we can repair some of the wrongness right here.
Surfin’ is a fairly long album, just about all instrumental (one vocal track), just about all crystalline and perfect-ish. Ranglin can wrangle notes out of his guitar that many people wouldn’t touch—either because they are too hard or because most guitar “geniuses” love to show off too much. Nothing here is flashy or slutty, but it is a master class anyway, because Ernest Ranglin can play anything in the world.
We start out in heavy manners mode with the dub aesthetic of the title song. Ranglin pushes tiny clusters of notes together into chunky chords and slinky descending runs; as you might expect, it is all informed by the surf music of Dick Dale and the Surfaris, but there is also country music here, rhythm and blues, rock, and afrobeat in these riffs. Everyone who ever pretended to the throne of guitar legend needs to get out the kneepads, because some genuflecting is in order.
Ranglin’s fingers are impressive enough, but his ears are the real story. He seems to have picked up influences from everywhere around the world, from Charlie Christian to King Sunny Ade to Pete Cosey—but I wonder if he didn’t just create a lot of these influences in the first place. (Okay, not Christian.) When he’s laying down the gentle chording on “One Chord Stylee”, he manages to sound exactly like Cuba’s great Manuel Galbán; but who’s to say that Galbán didn’t get this from Ernest Ranglin in the first place? It’s very possible.
While the prevailing mood is largely reggae-ish, there are excursions into tropical flamenco (“Reminiscing”), highlife (“Freedom Dancer”), fusion jazz (“Jah Kana”), calypso (“These Times”), and soupy big-band jazz (“Tender Moments”). The seven-minute “Diamond” is slow like justice, ominous as a siren, and bulked up linebacker-style by Dean Frazer’s saxophone lead, but it still manages to shine brightly thanks to Ranglin’s fills and syncopated chops; when it comes his turn to solo, he respectfully declines, which is so refreshing it could be a breeze. (Damn, I need to de-caffeinate those similes and metaphors, huh?) Even on the yeeshy “Dancing Mood II”, a syrupy over-synthed remake of the wonderful Delroy Wilson original—co-written by Ranglin—he manages to shine with his bubbly jangly textures.
Will this CD change your life? It depends. It ain’t perfect; there’s too much molasses-y sludge and trudge on too many tracks, and “Surfside” sounds too much like the title song, and blah blah blah. But if you want to hear the greatest guitar playing in the world, and if you have a love of reggae and / or a heart and a soul, you might want to book a date.