Hopeton Overton Brown aka Scientist left Jamaica for the United States in the mid-80s and now resides in California. Although he has been busy with his website dubmusic.com, in recent years (a sad consequence of a dub-ignorant publishing industry that prioritised songwriters as creators) the internet has heard more about his grievances over the rights to his old music than anything new. That changed in 2013 when the legendary engineer embarked on an intriguing collaboration that traverses the ley-lines between jazz and dub.
The Scientist Meets Ted Sirota's Heavyweight DubThe project is the brainchild of Chicagoan jazz drummer Ted Sirota - a long-time fan of reggae since Scientist’s heyday. After 35 years of playing jazz with some forays into Afrobeat, Sirota decided to indulge his still-intensifying passion for classic Jamaican sounds by forming his own live dub band Ted Sirota’s Heavyweight Dub in 2013. The idea for an album with Scientist arose abruptly through a chance encounter on the web when the ensemble had only played one gig. Sirota subsidised the release via the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and enlisted the great man to mix, co-produce and master recordings of his group: riffing on a mixture of original material, historic reggae covers and tracks recorded previously with Ted’s jazz outfit Rebel Souls.
Jamaican music and jazz have a long history of interaction. The Skatalites were heavily influenced by “the invisible art” – covering standards like Duke Ellington’s Caravan. In an interview with United Reggae, reggae and jazz enthusiast Chris Lane traced Roland Alphonso’s Jah Shakey, which became the Far East rhythm, back to Miles Davis’ Flamenco Sketches. Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 has been done over repeatedly since the rocksteady era by everyone from Val Bennett to Dennis Bovell and the Young Lions (and of course the reggae scene of London had its roots in jazz as outlined in Lloyd Bradley’s book Sounds Like London). Even today the music of Jah9 is titled “jazz on dub”. Rather than being an oddity this record is another chapter in the story.
This is not dub in the strictest, most puritanical sense: pre-recorded rhythms reduced to drum and bass with vocals removed. These are instrumental workouts with snatches of singing deliberately added. Vintage purists be warned: the sound is not the warm and fat analogue of Scientist’s adoptive home, Channel One. It's cold, jagged, metallic and spiky – giving a Pro Tools clarity to Sirota’s often aggressive work behind his set.
Bar Sirota, none of the band had played reggae before 2013. And it shows - in subtle and enjoyable ways. Spotting the unusual chords, interludes with sudden key changes and flurries of individual self-expression breaking out of the integrated collectivism of reggae is half the fun (also, try walking past a busker playing saxophone while listening on headphones as they involuntarily join in the jam…).
As you’d expect, the heaviness comes from Ted’s sharp, busy and showy drumming. Yet Matt Ferguson’s bass is not very prominent in the mix. Eddying horns meet crunching guitars and dissonant keyboards. Scientist squeezes, squelches, belches, bends and refracts all this with lashings of high pass filter, delay and percolating bubbling effects.
There are song titles that reference reggae cinematic and musical past in This Is A Takeover and Jackie Mee-too. We hear reworkings of Baltimore (written by Randy Newman, covered by Nina Simone and then the Tamlins), Sheila Hilton’s House On The Rock and Johnny Osbourne’s Give A Little Love. There is ska in Geronimo’s Free featuring a delightfully atonal Tom Vaitsas piano solo.
The vocal numbers were actually recorded at the behest of Scientist – and although they are ably sung by Ted’s wife Yanira, Paul Mabin and Chaka B or rapped by mc Diverse, there is a sense that the record could have worked without them. But their messages – like New Jim Crow’s attack on New York’s Stop and Frisk programme - are heartfelt. Ultimately though, the deepest truth is in the dialogue between Scientist’s studio craft and Sirota’s drums.
Oddly, considering this album had to be laid down in just five days, it is bursting with ideas and chops – far from the hypnotic minimalism of dub’s reputation. If you’re a fan of reggae jazzers such as Bovell, Soothsayers or the late 70s Dutch group Reggae Clinic 65 you’ll particularly enjoy this dense sonic collage. It's going to do valuable work getting people into dub, it's an excellent use of Kickstarter and it’s got Scientist out in the public ear, doing what he does best.