1983's Man From Higher Heights is an interesting chapter in the story of Count Ossie, but it succeeds in adding to that larger story more than it does as a stand-alone album.
Count Ossie is a legend in Rastafarian music, a trailblazer in the genre, and a mythical figure. The Soul Jazz label has been working to bring that myth to light with a series of releases including the compilation Rastafari: The Dreads Enter Babylon 1955-83 and Count Ossie's 1975 album with the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, titled Tales of Mozambique. These albums, along with the new reissue of the 1983 record Man From Higher Heights, draws a line back to jam sessions at Ossie's compound in the hills outside Kingston, as well as to sounds outside of that space, to reggae and dub records clearly influenced by Count Ossie.
The reissue of Man From Higher Heights complicates the relationship between artist and influence. The record is, in title, a Count Ossie record. However, its 1983 release comes seven years after Ossie died in a car wreck. Even now, it's unclear if these sessions include material recorded while Ossie was still living. It could be his name is included merely as tribute from the players that carried on his ethos. Whatever the explanation, Man From Higher Heights, which features a backing band named the Rasta Family (not the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari from Tales of Mozambique) sounds a good deal different than its predecessor. The taut energy and zealous vocals of Tales of Mozambique are traded for a series of more contemplative songs driven mostly by instruments. You can feel, in the lack of singing, the absence of a leader.
That absence, though, presents itself as opportunity. Brief opener "Africa We Want Fe Go" is a charged start, with the whole band chanting over impressive percussion and bright horn lines. It's a call to order of sorts, and sets the table for the rest of the record well. That sense of camaraderie, of community, persists in the album, but never comes back quite as fully until the end of the record.
In between those two communal moments, the record seems to focus on one instrument at a time, giving each player perhaps the chance to offer their eulogy to Count Ossie. "Cruising Down the Line" keeps the focus on the horns. Spare percussion leaves space for extended vamps and solos from one saxophone, with another sometimes jumping in with bleating, off-kilter fills. "Misfits" devotes its first half to some gauzy, narcotic guitar lines before turning to a trumpet solo. "Crossing River Jordan" lets the airy keyboards sit front and center, while "Drums for Wise Man", unsurprisingly, centers around the percussion.
This notion of taking turns, of circling into and out of the spotlight, gives Man From Higher Heights a disjointed feel, but also a sense of intimacy, as if each player wants to honor Ossie but also prove their worth. Each player, in getting their own time, seems to slip into some sweet sort of fatigue for closer "Chanting Higher Heights" where there's not much in the way of solos or melodies, just the spacious thump of drums, the occasional flute or distant guitar, and a lot of room to get lost in the rhythm. It feels like a culmination of all the album's fractured sounds. The songs never feel like they quite match up, but parts of the album play like preambles to this ending.
Man From Higher Heights is a curious, overlooked album. While having it reissued does add to a more public understanding of Count Ossie's importance in Rastafarian music, the album itself doesn't match up to Tales of Mozambique. This brief album, running roughly 26 minutes, just gets itself whipped up and going as it comes to an end. The playing is tight and the production is crisp, making the album's atmosphere a compelling counterpoint to the murky waters of dub production. But the hooks don't always stay, and the record doesn't run long enough to get lost in. Man From Higher Heights is an interesting chapter in the story of Count Ossie, but it succeeds in adding to that larger story more than it does as a stand alone album.