Champion In The Arena 1976-1977 (Blood and Fire BAFCD 042, 2003)
Jackie Mittoo is hardly the first name that comes to mind when you think of reggae, but the importance of the man in the history of Jamaican music cannot be overstated. A piano whiz from a very young age, he was in his mid-teens when he became the musical director at Clement Dodd’s famed Studio One in 1963.
His unmatched skills as a keyboard player and arranger, as well as his ability to turn bare-bones ideas into fully developed songs, led to his being a founding member of the legendary Skatalites as well. When the original Skatalites disbanded in 1965, Mittoo continued as an essential part of Studio One’s house band, playing with and providing guidance for some of the brightest stars in reggae.
From the late ’60s on, he divided his time between Canada (where he made his name recording easy listening music, of all things), Jamaica and England, eventually branching out into producing works by such artists as Musical Youth. But it was as a keyboard player that his brilliance was most evident, whether jamming in a smoky Kingston studio or a boozy British pub.
Champion in the Arena 1976-1977 collects tracks cut in Jamaica for producer Bunny Lee, and though it’s firmly within the realm of instrumental reggae with touches of dub, the versatility of Mittoo’s playing is evident throughout.
Over a foundation of riddims played by the likes of Sly Dunbar (drums), Robbie Shakespeare (bass) and Chinna Smith (guitar), Mittoo lays out intricate solos, organ sweeps suggestive of gospel and soul music, murky riffing that accentuates the steadfast reggae pulse and cool jazz-like passages.
It’s atmospheric, rawly ambient beautiful stuff, and it grooves like nobody’s business. Jackie Mittoo’s death at the age of 42 was a tremendous loss to reggae, and the consistently excellent Blood and Fire reissue label has done lovers of the classic Jamaican style a great service with this crucial release.