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Various Artists

Soul Jazz Records Presents Studio One Roots Vol. 3

(Soul Jazz; US: 17 Sep 2007; UK: 27 Aug 2007)

Soul Jazz Strikes Again

Question: When are the good people at Soul Jazz Records going to run out of obscure yet incredible material for their ongoing collection of instant-classic compilations?
Answer: Hopefully (and likely) not anytime soon.


Soul Jazz strikes again, with volume three of its Studio One Roots series. This latest is another generous installment, compiling eighteen tracks that very likely have never seen the light of day on other compilations—an issue that consistently mars many of the less inspired anthologies that have been recycled over the years. Indeed, Studio One Roots Vol. 3 culls material from a roster of lesser known to virtually unheard of musicians—making this set at once more interesting and unquestionably more valuable. It must continue to astonish any avid follower of this series just how inexhaustible the supply of righteous reggae truly is, and how often new gems are uncovered from the clandestine vaults at Studio One (or wherever these tapes have, until now, remained—buried in dust or otherwise discarded). Every new collection from Soul Jazz compels one to marvel at this variety and quality, while also—inevitably—lamenting the reality that such music has been hidden away for so long. Mostly, those of us who care should be deeply grateful that these performances are steadily being liberated from oblivion.


This being “roots” reggae, the recurring lyrical theme is a celebration of Rastafari culture. Where later—and lesser—reggae artists would dutifully namecheck the Conquering Lion of Judah, it often sounds perfunctory. These singles, mostly recorded in the early ‘70s, abound with a testimony of lives dedicated to the precepts of Rasta. And lest anyone, understandably, confuse authentic roots reggae with the more radio-friendly “One Love” vibrations, this music bristles with indignation, and casts concerned eyes and ears on all manner of inequality and injustice. A sample grab of song titles leaves little room for misinterpretation: “Oppression”, “Armagideon”, “Babylon Fever”, “Better Must Come”, “Brimstone and Fire” (the latter appropriated to brilliant effect on “Revolution”, the last song on Bob Marley’s masterwork Natty Dread ).


For the most part, this is a low-fi, old school production, evoking the lack of pretense, funds, and fashion inherent in the best roots reggae. In other words, it’s just about perfect.
And, as is always the case with this series, there are at least two previously unheard songs that, for this listener, quickly attained “how have I lived my entire life without this?” status. First and foremost, The Nightingales’ “What a Situation” is somewhat beyond significant: an organ and horn workout with vocal harmonizing that invites comparison to the best work of the Mighty Diamonds. Secondly, Dub Specialist’s “Musical Science” is another scorcher, with discreet guitar, brass, and bongos sounding more than a little like one of Sun Ra’s miniature big bands at the Black Ark (inspiring fantasies of what could have occurred had Ra ever actually hooked up with the Upsetta at some point in the mid- ‘70s: it is tantalizing, and even a bit overwhelming—in a good way—to contemplate the possibilities).


It is also nice to acknowledge that just because the mainstream wasn’t hearing this music, the artists who broke through—breaking barriers for reggae music in the process—were listening. You can connect the (black) dots between Bad Brains, particularly on their first album (“Leaving Babylon”, “I Luv I Jah”) and the earlier generation of roots radicals. And, for that matter, it’s instructive to note who the mighty Joseph Hill, on Culture’s triumphant Two Sevens Clash, was sending a shout out to in “Calling Rastafari”: Im and Count Ossie’s “So Long Rastafari Calling”, which predated it by a couple of years.


Once again, the unfamiliarity of these songs is complemented by the downright novelty of the artists. Aside from the Gladiators, Prince Jazzbo, and Freddie McKay, whom at least some reggae fans have heard of, there is a refreshing representation of no-hit wonders. Ever heard of Clifton Gibbs, Errol Dunkley, Lloyd Forest, or Winston Flames? Neither had I. Not to worry—everyone here warmly warrants inclusion.  Indeed, as is often the case with these collections, it is impossible not to ask the question: where is the rest of this stuff? Answer: hopefully coming out on future Soul Jazz Records releases.

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Sean Murphy loves music, books, and movies and can't imagine a world without sub-titles. He was born in northern Virginia and has never found a compelling reason to leave. He studied English at George Mason University and has an MA in Literature. One of his thesis papers dealt with the utopian impulse in '70s rock (which, depending upon one's perspective, at least partially explains why he opted not to purse that PhD in Cultural Studies). During his time at PopMatters he has written extensively about music, movies and books, and his column "The Amazing Pudding" appears every other month. His memoir Please Talk about Me When I'm Gone is now available via paperback and Kindle at Amazon. Visit him online at http://seanmurphy.net/.


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