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Ernest Ranglin & Friends

Venue: The Anvil
Town: Basingstoke
Date: 28/06/16

As real deals go they don't come any more real, or as big a deal for that matter, as diminutive Jamaican guitar man Ernest Ranglin.

On what he has declared his farewell tour he commands the stage with an understated authority, marshalling a crack band that numbers Soweto Kinch on sax, Senegalese multi instrumentalist Cheikh Lo, Afrobeat legend Tony Allen on drums, pianist Alex Wilson and bass man Ira Coleman.

At 84, Ernest has more than earned the rest. Widely credited with inventing ska, although of course it's never quite as simple as that, he taught himself to play on a sardine pan and strings before progressing to the ukuleles his uncles played. By 14 he was teaching himself music theory and picked up big band gigs alongside the likes of future Skatalites sax supremo Roland Alphonso.

Taking his leads from Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery he played in Duke Reid's band and formed R&B outfit The Blues Blasters whose shuffle boogies recorded with Coxsone Dodd in the late 50s are regarded as the first ska recordings, before going on to record with the early Skatalites and teach Bob Marley to play guitar - he also played on Marley's early Studio One hit It Hurts To Be Alone.

A move to London found him producing Prince Buster and Millie Small, headlining at Ronnie Scott's for nine months then returning to Jamaica to light up a slew of hits by The Paragons and The Melodians among others. Afforded the respect (if not the riches) he was due Ernest toured with Jimmy Cliff and by the mid-70s was exploring African music with Baaba Maal, a journey that brings him back to the UK this summer on an extended retirement party.

Ranglin's friends bring him on stage with the minimum of fuss, a mood he embraces and runs with throughout a 100+ minute set. His playing style is as sharp as ever, one moment his fingers are a blur across the strings, the next he's inverted his left hand and is beating out the rhythm using the guitar as a percussion instrument, then pulling even more sounds from the vintage Gibson that guitars don't usually make.

A couple of bars later and the virtuoso ventures another delicious obligato delivered with maximum skill and absolute economy. There's no face gurning, axe wielding, solo shredding for this best dressed chicken, instead he nimbly skips around the stage like a man half his age, throwing down musical jokes (a clip from Rossini here, a phrase from Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah there) and passing the solo baton around his band, all of whom are playing every note for the maestro.

Throughout Ernest Ranglin doesn't utter a word, his music says it all, but as Cheikh Lo takes the spotlight for a couple of vocal numbers it allows Ernest to shine as a sideman providing a distinctive rock steady 'chank', an eloquent and expressive counter to Lo's extravagant runs and fills.

In short, it's a quiet night, the like of which Ernest Ranglin has enjoyed many, many times, but on a rainy night in Hampshire, a small but enormously appreciative crowd was glad he spent just one of them with us.

Nick Churchill

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