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Concert reviews

Ernest Ranglin @ Jazz Cafe

The Jazz Café is packed and crackling with anticipation. At 75, Jamaican guitar genius Ernest Ranglin doesn’t tour the UK very often, so those gathered are only too aware that this is an opportunity not to be missed.

Dressed in a sharp, grey suit, he looks the picture of sprightliness and health when he graces the stage. On recent records the sense of fun being had is palpable - and it is just the same tonight. Grinning ear to ear, he is a congenial presence belying lightning fast fingers and an equally dexterous musical mind.

How to order your set is an open ended question for performers and DJs alike. Some open hard with their darker work and save the uplifting niceness for the end; some do the opposite. Tonight Ernest has a simple but effective structure: Smooth ska jazziness on the odds; tough rootsy numbers on the evens. Ball Of Fire, King Tubby Meets Rockers, Satta, Surfin', Double Barrell, and Nana's Chalk Pipe are all played, but on tonight’s form it could have been Jingle Bells and the theme from Happy Days and we’d have bellowed for more.

Jazz critics are sometimes a little snooty about Ranglin, seeing him as a second-tier artist, removed from the pure form. Anyone who has seen him play live or heard his finest albums (Ranglin Roots, Below The Bassline and From Kingston JA to Miami USA for example) knows this is nonsense. The real reason he can never be a true “jazzer” is he does not take “the invisible art” (or himself) as seriously as they think he should. His love of throwing in clichéd cartoon or horror phrases and asides to his famous pieces displays a playful nature out of step with their imperiousness.

To be a truly great lead guitarist, perfect timing is vital. Eric Clapton, despite what you may think of his music, has it. Many (faster) rock guitarists don’t. Ernest’s inimitable sense of rhythm takes it to a whole new level, particularly with his incredible solos on the very highest frets. The Mafia & Fluxy band (a bare essentials lineup of keys, drums, bass and sax) play their hearts out as a unified whole, each adding their own distinctive touches but never vying with their bandleader for our attention.

It is unlikely there will be another Ernest Ranglin in reggae. The Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure (who played at The Queen Elizabeth Hall just three days earlier) is a more worthy inheritor to his mantle than anyone coming out of Jamaica right now. Veteran, innovator, legend – he deserves all these accolades and more.

Review by Angus Taylor

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