Guitarist Ernest Ranglin is an elder statesman of Jamaican music. A self-styled composer and improviser, he has traveled and collaborated widely during his 80 years. In California last year, he teamed up with three much younger musicians from South Africa, the U.S. and Israel. The four musicians bonded and quickly recorded an album, named for the San Francisco street where they rehearsed: Avila.
Ranglin made his first guitar out of a sardine can and wire. In the '50s, he became one of the creators of the pre-reggae ska sound — and possibly the first guitarist to play the damped, staccato guitar lines Jamaicans call "scratching." Ranglin played on Bob Marley's first studio session and on Millie Small's 1964 breakout hit "My Boy Lollipop." Despite all his roots and pop credentials, Ranglin's true musical destiny lay elsewhere: in jazz.
The Avila song "Ska Rango" resembles old-school swing with a reggae lilt. What's not to love? Ranglin and his young music collaborators put a Jamaican rock-steady feel to the South African jazz classic "Mannenberg" — the song that put the great jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand in those days) on the map. Ranglin's take is both an homage and a reinvention.
Ranglin has an easy grace to his playing that lets him bridge continents and decades without breaking a sweat. His song "Memories of Senegal" has a tricky rhythm, but when Ranglin takes a solo, he soars like a bird, untroubled by the shifting terrain beneath him.
It's rare and refreshing to find a musician who has experienced so much and somehow held onto all of it. Ernest Ranglin is a walking, guitar-picking musical history book. On his newest project, Avila, you can feel the way the other three players — young, but also seasoned — respond to his masterful facility with Caribbean, American and African idioms. This is music built to last by a sage old cat who still happens to be one of the most interesting, and classiest, guitarists around.