Dave Hillyard & the Rocksteady Seven
Playtime is a diverse and interesting side project from one of the most talented people in the ska world today, saxophonist Dave Hillyard. Hillyard has done time in some of the most exciting and influential ska groups of the last decade, including Hepcat, Stubborn All-Stars, and his current band, the Slackers, so it should come as no surprise that his new combo, the Rocksteady Seven, are top-flight musicians — indeed, several members of those auspicious bands are involved in this project, as are members of Skavoovie & the Epitones, the Skatalites, and others.
What is surprising is the way this album was made. Hillyard gathered two different lineups into studios for two separate sessions, and laid down all the tracks live. That’s right, no overdubs, no retakes, just Hillyard and some of the most talented musicians around, jamming in the studio, warts and all. The result is electrifying — the music on Playtime has a palpable energy all its own. For that matter, the tracks don’t stick to a tried and true formula. Yeah, there are a couple of tracks that would fit in with the output of some of Hillyard’s other bands — “Hillyard Street” and “Ugly Man Blues” have a dirty groove not unlike the Slackers’ signature sound, and when the magical voices of Greg Lee and Alex Desert kick in on “The Fool” and “Angry Lady” (the only two vocal tracks on the otherwise instrumental record), you can’t help but be put into the mind of Hepcat — but the Rocksteady Seven explore a lot of sounds that would never fit in with those bands’ regular sets. The Dixieland flavor of “Sydney’s March” and “Sydney’s Ghost” is a good example, as is the frantic ska-jazz of “Father and Son,” and the almost mournful title track, and while Hillyard’s other bands have tried Latin-flavored tunes on occasion, they haven’t approached the Latin swing of “Skavez.”
The most surprising thing about Playtime , though, is that it’s not simply a showcase for Hillyard’s amazing saxophone skills (though they do, of course, get a workout). Each member of these stellar ensembles gets a chance to shine, and considering the shining lights involved, that’s important! Kudos to Hillyard for steering this project in the right direction — it could have easily turned into a self-indulgent wank-fest, but instead, it’s an absolutely compelling document of some truly magical moments.
Hellcat Records, 2798 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026, www.hellcat.com