Live: Skatalites Deliver Sound That First Put Ska On The Map

Ska pioneers play a jazzy set of ska that inspires some to dance and others to reminisce.

NEW YORK -- It was about freedom and control. The band was

relatively motionless.

The crowd, on the other hand, couldn't stop moving.

As concert attendee Sean Grennan sees it, the reasons are simple: The

Skatalites play ska as ska was meant to be played -- soulful and

laid-back

on the surface, yet, in its essence, every bit as danceable as the modern day ska coming from the likes of No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

"I don't really like stuff that's rammed down your throat," said a

sweaty

and tired Grennan as he took a breather during the Skatalites' recent show at the

Knitting Factory.

The Burlington, Vt., native who attends school at Queens College in New

York City, was talking about the legendary Skatalites, one of the

Jamaican

forefathers of today's ska. The band was in town Saturday to promote

their

new album, Ball of Fire, which includes some new tracks as well

as

remakes of the classics that got the ska ball rolling in the early-to-mid-'60s.

The original version of the

Skatalites, led by trombonist Don Drummond (who killed his wife in 1965, and died a few years later while institutionalized), came onto the scene in the early '60s, just as their fellow countrymen in Jamaica were

searching for a national sound that they could dance to. That

may

explain why these ska veterans began their one-hour set by counting

down,

from 10 to one, to a song titled "Freedom Sounds," from their new album.

The eight-plus minutes of "Freedom Sounds" evoked a joyful, jazzy,

sultry

mood, more conducive to serious, sensual dancing than skanking. The

sound

might have surprised newer fans of ska, used to the louder, faster,

punk-influenced American bands of the '90s. However, the Skatalites, who

are more jazz-influenced than many of their contemporaries, have been

hitting a more soulful ska groove for almost four decades.

Saturday's show, before a young, enthusiastic crowd of about 300, proved

their subtler rhythms are still lively, danceable and utterly Jamaican.

Clad in natty sport coats, the seven-member group continued with

"Eastern

Standard Time" and "Ringo," instrumentals from Ball of Fire that

are

more reminiscent of their jazz-influenced jams during '80s live shows

than

the '60s studio-work for which they are best known. Most bandmembers

were

motionless, trading solos with little physical fanfare.

Original bassist Lloyd Brevette was the exception. Grooving beside his bass in a

striking white suit and hat, he was the group's focal point until singer

Doreen Schaeffer took the stage for a few classic ska numbers.

The audience, already dancing constantly, cheered, stomped and danced to

familiar songs such as "Simmer Down" and "You're Wondering Now."

Schaeffer

left the stage before the band broke into what may be its signature

track,

"Guns of Navarone." Trumpeter Nathan Breedlove, the only youthful

Skatalite

in a group that also includes original members Roland Alphonso

(tenor

sax), Lloyd Nibbs (drums) and Lester Sterling (alto sax), commenced the

song by yelling, "Bang! Boom!" and the number delivered on his promise

of

explosion.

Inspired by the American movie of the same name, "Guns of Navarone" was

re-born as a popular song owned by newly independent (from British rule) Jamaicans. This

performance reaffirmed that ska is now an international sound (popularized in Britan in the late '70s and most recently the U. S.).

Thirteen-year-old Manhattan resident Ella Sternberg was easily the

youngest

fan in the audience, but she displayed an appreciation of ska's history

and

of legends such as the Skatalites. "I'm glad I got to see some of the

original (Skatalites) members while they're still alive," she said.

Sternberg shouldn't worry about the Skatalites' imminent demise,

however.

They are ageless. And though all save Breedlove are at least in their

late

50s, they proved it by playing a consistently lively set straight

through

their encore of "Phoenix City."

By that time, the Skatalites no longer needed to count down to freedom.

They'd found it. [Thurs., Feb. 12, 1998, 9 a.m.

PST]