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"United Front" from United Front
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Rocksteady 7, United Front (Do Tell Records) David Hillyard and The Rocksteady 7’s Island Melodies Meet Improv and Harmonics Spicing a Classic Jamaican Stew

Improvise and overcome. When famed Kingston producers like Coxsone Dodd at Studio One and Duke Reid with Treasure Isle recorded the earliest Jamaican ensembles like the Skatalites, studio time and tape were precious. Recording handfuls of musicians on very few tracks, players had to get it right the first time. The live process was dynamic and yielded vibrant results. It’s fitting that an LP from Coxsone’s basement labeled in magic marker “King of Sax-Alphonso” ended up on the turntable of David Hillyard, The Rocksteady 7’s founder.  Hours were spent with this mysterious record learning phrasing and nuance.

Three years later, a young Hillyard was recording with his hero, legendary Skatalites tenor saxophonist Roland Alphonso. Then, with L.A. ska band Hepcat, he toured supporting the Skatalites. One of Hillyard’s most-prized possessions is hand-written scales and exercises given to him by Skatalites founder Tommy McCook. Under McCook’s tutelage, he absorbed the pioneer’s offerings, including his love for the great tenor sax players like Lester Young and John Coltrane. Ironically, Jamaicans reinvigorated Hillyard’s interest in American jazz and R&B.

“Reggae is very syncopated but is seen as simple by ‘jazz aficionados’ while Miles and Coltrane were celebrated for two chord songs. With ska the modal tones are similar for imposing harmonies and solos,” notes Hillyard. “The more I play, the more I see it as a continuum. The new record is a little more experimental in a certain linear aspect, progressing through form like Miles Davis did in ‘Solar’ and ‘Tune Up’…but you can’t just copy other people’s shit, you have to pay respect, and then make it your own.”

Blending ska, reggae, jazz and blues, David Hillyard and The Rocksteady 7 release United Front, their second full LP, on Do Tell Records due April 28, 2003.  Hillyard progresses the cycle of mixing Jamaican Rhythms and American Jazz. Celebrating commonalities, United Front is improvised foundation ska, roots reggae, and dub played by an accomplished and diverse line-up. “I picked the musicians for their personal style,” says Hillyard. “I want them to be themselves and make a soup. This recording is all live, no overdubs.”

With NYC reggae band The Slackers, Hillyard and organist Vic Ruggerio have long recorded their own blend of ska boogie. Guitarist David Hahn has played with several groups including, Antibalas and his own Dub Is A Weapon. The band’s percussionist Larry McDonald—who is best known for playing on great Jamaican songs like “Rivers of Babylon”—lays down solid rhythms creating a “wall of drums” in tandem with the drum kit player, Eddie Ocampo. As a drummer in Jamaica, McDonald’s ability to sing elevated his value. When band members heard McDonald singing the jazz standard “There Will Never Be Another You” in the back of the tour van, Rocksteady 7’s trumpeter Rolf thoroughly re-arranged it for United Front.

Along with Dixieland, swing, jazz and the island sounds, there’s an element of Charlie Haden: being political, without beating you on the head. The first song on United Front is an old Spanish socialist song, reworked in a militant rockers style. “I have to be political,” explains Hillyard. “People need to express themselves. I do that with my horns. Sometimes you can say more without words”