Champion of the Arena 1976-1977

Jul 30, 2003 at 12:00 am

As reggae historian and archivist Steve Barrow’s Blood & Fire label as been proving for the last six years or so, reggae’s heyday was concurrent with America’s lapse into disco and overblown AOR rock. On this latest Blood & Fire comp, attention turns to former Skatalites keyboardist Jackie Mittoo, best known for his victory-charge keys on the mid-’60s ska classic “The Guns of Navarone.” Champion of the Arena 1976-1977, however, follows Mittoo to Canada, and his work with producer Bunny Lee and Black Uhuru’s coal-into-diamond-tight rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare revisiting ‘60s rocksteady and reggae tracks into deep and dirty dub interpretations. Originally titled Showcase, the sessions reveal a collaborative effort, with Dunbar and Shakespeare letting Mittoo’s keys take center stage. This can just as often render the resulting tracks as curious reggae Muzak as it can be a worthy showcase for Mittoo’s interpretive skills.

Like Augustus Pablo, Mittoo can lead a tune with wandering keys, but when Lee starts adding layers of synthesizer, the sound, which must have sounded timely during the Carter administration, comes off as dated and trite. These are minor problems, however; if anything, Champion bridges a gap between the more easy-listening orchestrations of Esquivel and the classic dub reggae sound that Mittoo’s warbly organs and synth strings saves from sounding like mere rehashes.

E-mail Hobey Echlin at [email protected].