When I told a friend I was going to see The Skatalites her reaction was “they still play?” an understandable reaction considering that The Skatalites began in 1964. The fact is only one founding member remains of the Skatalites, 77-year-old alto saxophone player Lester Sterling. Surround Sterling is a motley crew of musicians: fellow Jamaicans like Trevor “Sparrow” Thompson on drums, Val Douglas on bass, and Doreen Shaffer on vocals. Those are the old timers; the young’uns of the group include three Americans: Cameron Greenlee on keyboards, Kevin Batchelor on trumpet, and Andrae Murchison on trombone. Rounding out the group are two internationals: French guitarist Natty Frenchy and Nigerian saxophonist Azemobo Audu.
For those who have never been to Black Eyed Sally’s, it is first and foremost a restaurant with weekly performances of blues and jazz artists; a ska show like the Skatalites is a real oddity. Many patrons sat near the stage at tables eating the restaurant’s traditional BBQ fare. As Skatalites’ members wandered in off of the snowy streets of Hartford, they looked around almost unsure if they were in the right place. Once inside the group seemed in none too much of a hurray to play. Members of the Skatalites chit-chatting with audience members, eating food, and sitting around. The atmosphere became tense with even the show’s promoter having stern words with the band to take the stage.
Finally the band members took the stage. With the majority of the club’s occupancy still seated at tables, eating the band began to play. It was an odd vibe. A couple people dance directly in front of the stage while patrons ate at tables mere feet away but as the set wore on that changed. The band smartly made the set front heavy with instrumental classic like “Guns of Navarrone” and “James Bond Theme” to engage the crowd. By the time Doreen Shaffer took the stage to sing a few songs, most of the club was on the dance floor. Shaffer and crew rifled through a few covers such as Bob Marley‘s “Simmer Down” and other Jamaican classics. After four tracks, Shaffer exited the stage to allow the band to go back to instrumentals.
Seeing the Skatalites is a lot like seeing a jazz band. Each song starts with a chorus or theme and then each member has a verse to explore the theme on their instrument. Brooklyn trumpeteer, Kevin Batchelor seemed to be the most dynamic of the bunch changing his horn’s sound from brass bleats to low muffled wails all within the same solo. Equally impressive was saxophonist Azemobo Audu who sounded well studied in Coltrane with his solos often taking an atonal path. On the other side, trombonist Andrae Murchison and group founder Lester Sterling both have a more traditional ska style. The musicianship of the horn section seemed unmatch by any modern ska bands’. Clearly Sterling has only invited the best of the best to join him on stage.
As the night wore on and sweat began to pour from band and audience member alike, it became obvious that any ill will created by the delayed performance has dissipated. The band had brought the sunny sounds of Jamaica to a very snowy Hartford and the crowd enjoyed it. When the band re-entered the stage for their encore, keyboardist Cameron Greenlee commented on the “really great vibe” of the show as the crowd cheered in agreement.