Into the groove

The ubiquitous indigo CD lives in practically everyone’s collection. No surprise there: Bob Marley’s Legend is what most of us think of when we think of reggae.

Marley’s birthday was Feb. 5; accordingly, his voice could be heard that day on many a radio station throughout the land. But, day in and day out, Marley’s sound and ambassadorship still put Jamaica on the map. In fact, most people see his music as reggae itself –where it all started, so to speak. And many, perhaps subconsciously, think Marley’s music is also where reggae ended. But a band like Jah Works is living proof that that just isn’t so.

This energetic, upbeat nine-piece group — which hails from Baltimore, of all places — aims to push the genre to the next level. Lead vocalist Scott Paynter and guitarist Kevin Gorman insist that, despite what mainstream-radio airplay would suggest, reggae didn’t fade out after Marley’s death. On the contrary: It continues to be an influential world force — maybe more so now than ever.

“Bob Marley was responsible for bringing reggae to the world, and for a reggae band, that’s a blessing and a curse,” says Paynter. “I love Bob Marley: His music is one of the reasons I listened to reggae. But now, everybody has to measure whatever comes out of reggae [by] Bob Marley, and that’s not really fair. … That was his own band, his own sound. It’s like saying that no one in jazz can do anything unless they are as good [as] — and sound just like — Duke Ellington or Miles Davis.”

For those who thought they knew what reggae was, Jah Works is a clear exemplar of what reggae is right now. The band employs a broad spectrum of innovative sound, and while it’s still definitely reggae, Jah Work’s latest album — Taking Off Tomorrow (Riddim House Productions, 1998) — is about as similar to early Wailers as The Who’s music is to the London Philharmonic’s.

Dub poetry, DJ beats and high energy have characterized Jah Works’ live shows since the early days, according to reggae magazines like The Beat and Dub Missive. Back in ’97, The Beat stated: “The entire band grooves as if they grew up within the rich heritage of ska and rock-steady from which they draw to build their solid reggae sound.” Significantly, Jah Works has opened for Burning Spear, Third World, Israel Vibration, Big Youth, Toots and the Maytals, Yellowman and Eek-A-Mouse — plus a wide variety of other artists, including Ben Harper, Stevie Wonder, Live, Pharcyde and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.

The 12 tracks on Taking Off Tomorrow are polished, multitextural and trippy. This band offers a diverse sound, with a definite current of soul running through it. You can smell Detroit on a few tracks and catch definite hints of Marvin Gaye on others. The band’s DJ, Natty Roc, raps out a good dose of his patois on several tunes; two dub selections round out the disc.

Jah Works’ influences, Gorman reveals, come from all over: Paynter grooves on soul and R & B, Gorman likes a lot of DJ and dance music — especially the British trip-hop stuff. But he says that Jamaica, still the epicenter of reggae, remains the band’s main inspiration. Reggae changes drastically and dynamically down there, constantly shaken up with teeth-rattling force and split into different factions — like the heavily sampled dub style and dancehall (an immensely popular subgenre influenced by American hip-hop). The small, seething island hosts a constant riot of new groups and songs, in which reggae fans the world over immerse themselves with marked abandon. These fans number in the millions, and they certainly include the members of Jah Works.

“As far as reggae goes, we were and still are influenced by anything and everything reggae,” Gorman maintains. “We familiarize ourselves with what’s going on in Jamaica — it’s incredible … all about what is current, what’s happening. There, the song [that became a hit] two months ago is [already] going out of rotation, and the next hot thing and the next hot DJ [are] constantly coming about.”

The band has achieved two major milestones, so far. Their second, self-released recording,Send The Rain, was enhanced by a legendary dub-mixer named Scientist — a Kingston-based protege of King Tubby, another famous mixmaster. It was a great experience for the band, Gorman admits, that gave the group some serious, career-boosting props.

But it was probably the trip most of the band took to Jamaica this past January that offered the biggest benefits.

Jamming in the garden from which reggae sprang was, in Gorman’s words, “simply, absolutely incredible.” He says the band underwent an important bonding time, and felt encouraged to continue exploring in the studio — and to attack the stage even harder.

“It was a great experience all the way around,” remembers Gorman. “No shows were lined up before we left, but our sax player and DJ Natty Roc know a lot of people down there. Within five days, we had gigs lined up, and we wound up playing some great shows.”

They even managed to link up with reigning Jamaican singers and DJs. Local musicians let them share their equipment, their stages and their spotlights. Paynter ended up singing with several house bands — the real deal, the burning center of reggae. When the band boarded their departing plane, they carried a lot more than tourist trinkets back to Maryland: “The response from the locals gave us tremendous amounts of energy,” says Paynter. “We’re still riding that vibe.”

Adds Gorman: “We’ve played at festivals in … West Indian neighborhoods in New York and D.C. And [we’ve] open[ed] for other big, well-known reggae artists. … But to go down there, to get such a good response, we thought, ‘Man! Who can dis us anyplace else?'”

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