Consider Soul Jazz Records to be the 101 class of the reissue game. With an ever-present finger on hipster impulse, the label has specialized in aesthetically attractive starter courses, packaging anything from New York ‘mutant disco’ to classic NOLA funk in brightly colored, deluxe packaging. The label has struck diggers’ gold on occasion with focus studies of underrepresented scenes, such as Miamian funk and Brazilian post-rock, but catchy, playable goods rather than collector’s treasures have been Soul Jazz’ forte. Subsequently, expectations for Studio One Women, the latest addition to the company’s extensive foray through the Jamaican Studio One catalog, can be summarized as modest; meaning, enjoyable more than comprehensive, perhaps a stroll through Marcia Griffith’s hits more than a search for her understudy’s unreleased works.
That Studio One Women is in fact intriguing and, often times, thought provoking is a welcome surprise. The compilation features familiar artists—Hortense Ellis, the Soulettes (including the future Rita Marley) and the aforementioned Griffiths—but in a wide range of times (copyright dates range from 1966 to 1981) and styles. The arrangement of notable names in a new context is an excellent way to assess the work. In addition to liner notes that focus on non-artist female figures that were key to the Studio One organization, such as founder Clement Dodd’s mother (and, arguably, “Jamaica’s first female DJ”) Doris Darlington and Sister Ignatius, head of the parochial school that produced many key musicians (and also an arguable holder of the first woman DJ title), Studio One Women depicts women as integral figures as opposed to a marginalized niche.
Wisely avoiding another parade of “Feel Like Jumping” and “No, No, No”, Studio One Women instead selects a breadth of material from Jamaica’s finer sex. The Soulettes trip lightly through “Deh Pon Dem” and “King Street” with a unique mixture of foppish daintiness and stirring soul. Hortense Ellis comes close to one-upping her genius brother Alton as she gently rides the slapping riddim of “I’m Just a Girl” to a dubby close. Jennifer Lara bridges the disco version with disco itself on “I’m in Love”, a cut that drifts between an echoing native backbeat and American R&B vocal styling. The combination of varied recordings sheds a welcome light on the input and output of female Jamaican artists as being diverse and creative in their own right.
While the leading ladies of Studio One offer obvious, commendable takes, Studio One Women‘s hands-down highlight is the benefactor of its dedication: Jennifer Lara. Like so many other singers, Lara began as a back-up vocalist working on sessions for Freddie MacGregor, Johnny Osbourne and Willie Williams. Her ability to break out on her own becomes resoundingly clear on early sides like “Consider Me”, where she slinks around the sparkling Movie Star riddim. Singing with a supple, low alto, such as on “Tell Me Where”, she offers a dense, bluer alternative to her numerous cheery or staccato counterparts. Instead of perking up to the sound of that upbeat, Lara lays back in the cut and sings with a weathered sense of authority that belies her youth. Best is her supple plea on “My Man” which adds an unusual, borderline transgender quality to this excellent slab of lover’s rock. Though no other artist on this compilation matches Lara’s incomparable grace, her presence alone makes clear that each of these artists should be assessed on their individual merits.
Admittedly, the format and title of this collection hints at the familiar adage of women being the backbone of a community—a quasi separate-but-equal idea, if you will. In a field such as reggae, whose face is overwhelmingly represented by male artists and producers, little room is left for the ladies. However, this release is a notable step forward for Soul Jazz’ Studio One series; now that many of the principle bases have been covered in previous releases, the label can dig deeper and question prior notions. What defines the quintessential artist? Who are they? Keep an eye on this series: there’s promise out yonder.