Still in Orbit – SKA LEGENDS THE SKATALITES COME TO SOHO

Lester Sterling can still wail a mean sax at age 77, and as the last surviving original member of the Skatalites, he has a right to. It’s a slinky, almost African sound, reminiscent of not just the history of ska, but of the Ethiopian jazz scene developing a continent away. Mr. Sterling’s band, which reunited in the ’80s and has continued playing ever since, comes to SOhO this Thursday, and should not be taken for granted.

As much as the original Skatalites have contributed to the history of ska and beyond, their ’60s incarnation was as chaotic personally as their storming and sweaty first gigs. Trombonist Don Drummond, who wrote a majority of their material, suffered from bouts of mental illness, checked in and out of sanitariums, and murdered his girlfriend in 1965. When he died four years later, most of Jamaica came out in the streets for the funeral.

Meghan Sepe photo
Meghan Sepe photo
Bickering and in-fighting tore apart the band, with two groups rising from the ashes of the Skatalites.

But the group reunited in the early ’80s in New York, bolstered by the second wave of ska from the UK in the early part of the decade, and the burgeoning revival movements in all genres of popular music. Mellowed out and skilled, the Skatalites wound up having a better second career. Over the years, the group has lost its original members: Jackie Mittoo in 1990, Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso in 1998, Lloyd Knibb in 2011, and Lloyd Brevett in 2012. But the Skatalites keep going with Mr. Sterling at the helm, new members joining, and always a globetrotting schedule to keep up with. (Since the revival, they’ve played all over the world.)

It was Lloyd Knibb, quoted in an interview a few years before his death, who said about quitting: “Everybody keeps asking me when I’m gonna retire: What’s that mean? I’m gonna go sit in a chair and do nothin’? I don’t want to do that.”

Mr. Knibb never did that, and it doesn’t seem like Mr. Sterling and company are going to either.

The Skatalites released three albums during their heyday, along with tons of singles and session work, but they’ve released way more since their ’80s revival. Although their discography has occasionally flirted with dubious production techniques (dated ’80s sounds, for example), for the most part this classic ska band has been consistent sounding. “Walk With Me” (Jamaica Jazz Records), their latest 11-track album, sounds just a little bit polished, but ditches perfection for a great live-in-studio sound. Whether or not it was recorded this way, it sounds like the whole band is in one room having a good time. Among the instrumentals for which they’re best known, opening “Desert Ska” evokes a certain other band’s night boat to Cairo, while “Hot Flash” is 12-bar blues with a throbbing bass line.

There’s soul-jazz guitar leading into “Lalibela” and a melody quite similar to “All of Me” on “Piece for Peace,” where each member takes a solo. And their cover of Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” is just lovely, a mellower take than the original cover by former Skatalite Roland Alphonso from the 1970s. The only vocal track, “Love Is the Way” features Doreen Shaffer, but more importantly it marks the last appearance by original drummer Lloyd Knibb, who passed away before the album could be released. But the album is a fitting tribute to all former band members, too.

The Skatelites
When: 9 p.m. Thurs.
Where: SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, 1221 State St.
Cost: $16-$21
Information: 962-7776, www.sohosb.org

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