An intimate night with Ernest Ranglin

By Dave Douglas

Left to right: Chris Butcher, Trombone, Bobby Hsu on alto sax, Mike Authurs on tenor sax, Vocalist Niamba, Ernie Ranglin, guitar and Shane Forrest, bass player. Photo by Gerard Rich
Left to right: Chris Butcher, Trombone, Bobby Hsu on alto sax, Mike Authurs on tenor sax, Vocalist Niamba, Ernie Ranglin, guitar and Shane Forrest, bass player.
Photo by Gerard Rich

On Sunday, Dec. 11, the Seven44 Restaurant and Lounge – formally the Chick’n Deli – was packed. You could feel the intensity and excitement in the air as Jay Douglas and the All Stars Band worked the crowd and kept them entertained while they awaited the evening’s special guest, the Caribbean’s Living Legend of Jazz Guitar and the creator of the rhythmic guitar style of the ska genre, Maestro Ernest Ranglin.

Douglas, a Jamaica-born veteran soul singer for over 40 years and a stalwart in the Toronto entertainment business, took the crowd down memory lane, spanning genres from ska and soul to rocksteady and blues. His répertoire included hits like From Man to Man, It Hurts Me So, Hallelujah and Simmer Down, all big audience pleasers.

Jay, as most people prefer to call him, is known as an outspoken artist and makes no bones about being a proud Canadian. At one point during his set, he requested the audience join him in a toast to Canada.

“We are very blessed to be able to call this great stabilized force of natural resources, Canada,” said Jay. “God bless Canada but … we must not forget the Caribbean, so those of you that are from Jamaica, make some noise!”

The room was immediately filled with shouts, applause and laughter from the audience. “Let’s raise our glasses! Come on all you rich folks, “let’s raise our glasses, raise ‘em up high now, please! We thank God for this great country called Canada!” Douglas said.

Photo by Gerard Rich
Photo by Gerard Rich

When Ranglin was introduced on stage, the audience was all warmed up and ready to receive the 83-year-old guitar virtuoso. He first came to international fame in1964 when Island Records mogul Chris Blackwell brought him and Jamaican singer Millie Small to London to record My Boy Lollipop.

In the spring of that year, the song reached number two on the U.K. chart and went on to become a worldwide hit, launching the new genre ska into the international pop music arena, a first for a Jamaican artist.

In 2008, he was inducted into the Jamaican Music Hall of Fame by the Jamaica Association of Vintage Artistes and Affiliates.

After emcee Danae Peart of CHRY gave an eloquent introduction describing him as ‘the Ranglin One,’ Douglas escorted the guitar guru onstage amid loud cheering by an enthusiastic crowd.  Small in stature, and dressed in a three-piece grey suit, he started passing out charts to the musicians. Then, taking hold of his red Gibson 335 guitar, he welcomed his audience.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! It’s an honour to be here but this is not my first time. I’ve been here many times before and I hope that whatever we are going to do this evening will be very pleasant and you’ll accept what the guys are trying to play for you, but I’ll be trying hard to please you.”

He then got down to the business of introducing the band but not before acknowledging the musicians.  “We have such very great musicians here tonight,” said Ranglin. The All Stars Band included; bass, Shane Forrest; keyboard, Kingsley Ettienne; drummer, Pablo Paul; tenox sax, Mike Arthurs; alto sax, Bobby Hsu; trombone, Chris Butcher; second keyboard, Bruce Skerritt and guitarist, Dave West. Each introduced themselves individually.

Ranglin opened with Way Back Home, a song written by the Crusaders and from his smile you could clearly see he was having fun with the boys in the band. Members of the three-piece horn section took turns soloing, while Ranglin held down a driving, skanking rhythm oh his guitar. During the trombone solo, he switched to his signature percussive note tapping, adding a polyrhythm drum-like effect to the groove. The audience applauded as the ‘King of Skank’ raised his head and smiled, as if to say I’m just getting started.

Although Ranglin is dissatisfied with the lack of exposure he got as a jazz musician, and does not contemplate going back to playing mainstream jazz, he is undeniably a true jazz musician. This was quite evident in his composition Moon Dance, a heavy, skanking groove with beautifully arranged horns taking the lead with the melody, followed by the tenor and alto saxes, conversing, while Ranglin kept coloring with chords and arpeggios. Like Picasso, he’s great at it.

At the end of his performance, Ranglin exited the stage and mingled with the audience. Those in the front greeted him with handshakes and hugs as he made his way through the applauding crowd. When emcee Peart asked, “Do you want more Ranglin?” the audience responded, “Yeah! More Ranglin! More Ranglin!”

The Caribbean guitar icon was escorted back onstage for an encore. The band began to play and after a few notes from the familiar bass line, the audience was all up on their feet recognizing it was time to go Surfing.