Tommy McCook

Tommy McCook and Friends

The Authentic Ska Sound of Tommy McCook

Moon Ska Records

Tommy McCook passed away on May 5th, 1998. Chances are, most of the people reading this article are saying “who the heck is Tommy McCook?” That’s downright criminal. McCook should be a household name. While there was an outpouring of support from his fellow ska and reggae musicians and fans (both Moon Ska Records and Boston’s Bim Skala Bim organized benefit concerts to help pay for a proper burial in his Jamaican homeland), the music world at large barely seemed to notice his passing.

I shouldn’t have to explain why McCook’s legacy is so important to music, but the fact is, the man never really got his due in life, and most readers won’t understand why Ink Nineteen is devoting so much space to this release if I don’t. McCook started his musical career as a jazz saxophonist in the 1950’s, largely based in the Bahamas. He returned home to Jamaica in 1962, as the initial ska craze was sweeping the nation. Coxsonne Dodd, the chief producer at the seminal Studio One, was looking to form a permanent band from the studio musicians that provided the grooves on the initial ska records. He asked McCook to join the band as its leader and tenor saxophonist. After a bit of cajoling, McCook finally agreed, and even gave the fledgling band its name — the Skatalites.

The original Skatalites were only together for about a year and a half, but they left an indelible mark on the music world. Not only did they record their own records, but they provided the backing band for nearly every Jamaican act of the day, from Toots & the Maytals to Ken Boothe to early Bob Marley classics. After the Skatalites broke up in 1965, McCook went on to lead the Supersonics, who were responsible for leading the way for the transition from ska to rocksteady and reggae. This puts McCook solidly at the roots of a tree that grew to bear fruit of incredibly diverse flavor. One can easily draw a direct line from reggae to rap (straight out of the dancehalls) and most variations of electronica (as an outgrowth of dub). When you factor in the influence reggae has had on many rock artists and the recent success of such ska-influenced acts as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish, it becomes evident that the world has lost a key figure. When listening to McCook’s music, it’s clear the world has lost a major talent, too.

The Authentic Ska Sound of Tommy McCook was recorded in 1997, while McCook was still in good health, and released by Moon Ska just a few months before his untimely passing, as the fourth album in their “Ska Authentic” series, showcasing the work of the music’s originators. It’s a fine introduction to McCook’s work, easily accessible to new listeners, and sure to appeal to fans of modern-day traditionalists like the Stubborn All-Stars and Hepcat. McCook is backed by an all-star ensemble that includes, among others, original Skatalite Lloyd Brevett (bass), present-day Skatalites Will Clark (trombone) and Bill Smith (keys), the Toasters’ Sledge (trumpet), and vocals by original Skatalites vocalist Lord Tanamo and producer Cedric “King” Bravo. The result is an irresistible treasure, a record that’s almost painfully good.

It seems ironic that two of the best tracks on the record are tributes to the dearly departed. The snappy, upbeat “Don Drummond – the Man with the Big Trombone” (a Drummond composition) is, of course, paying respects to McCook’s late bandmate, whose tragic demise helped contribute to the Skatalites’ break-up. While Drummond’s demise was grim (he died in a mental institution after allegedly killing his girlfriend), the track is anything but; its very nature is joyous, choosing to remember the man for the joy he brought to others, as the horns shine in his memory. The other elegy is the stirring “Loving Princess Diana (African Rap).” Diana died as this album was being recorded, and McCook was moved to include the track as a tribute, reworking a traditional Jamaican tune with new lyrics and African rap featuring Felix Amarabe. It’s a moving gesture that, like “Drummond,” also seems to focus on the joy in her life.

One of the best tracks for showcasing McCook’s amazing saxophone prowess is “Secret Love.” He gets a smooth mellow tone, as beautiful as the finest human voice, and his saxophone almost seem to be dueting with Lord Tanamo, as if it’s actually the singer and the instrument are in love with each other. There’s a similar feel on “Blood Clad Eyes” (which younger listeners may know from the Skalars’ recent version, retitled “Bloodshot Eyes.”) with a nice, muted trumpet joining in to form a raucous trio, while Lynn Taitt’s guitar solos provide a perfect counterpoint.

McCook’s composition skills get a showcase on “Yelling King Bravo,” an upbeat, danceable instrumental that nicely showcases all the horns. There’s some outstanding interplay between McCook’s sax and Sledge’s trumpet; the two horns almost seem to challenge each other, spurring each on to more than the sum of its parts. The contrast between McCook’s lilting sax solos and Sledge’s jazzy muted trumpet is simply gorgeous.

The album is nicely rounded out by the album-opener “They Laughed,” with its infectious dance groove, and dub versions of “Laughed” (“Skalypso Dub”) and “Blood Clad Eyes” (“Blood Clad Dub”). This record is essential for any ska fan, and is also highly recommended to introduce new listeners to the roots of the music. It’s thoroughly entertaining, and a suitable epitaph for the man and the legend.

In a 1995 interview by Moon’s Noah Wildman (partially reprinted in the detailed liner notes), McCook is quoted as saying “I hope, with the help of the Almighty and everybody keeps good health, we should carry on maybe to 2000.” Unfortunately, that just wasn’t to be. It seems so cruel; as The Authentic Ska Sound of Tommy McCook shows, this man was still a vibrant presence. It’s heartbreaking to think that he’s not with us anymore. Moon Ska Records, PO Box 1412, New York, NY 10276, http://www.moonska.com

Much credit for the historical aspects of this review goes to Wildman’s lovingly constructed liner notes, and to the work of Bob Timm on the Mining Company Ska site at http://ska.miningco.com/. For more information on ska history, the Skatalites, and McCook, readers are encouraged to check out Timm’s work and the official Skatalites Web site at http://www.skatalites.com.

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