Like other Jamaican musicians of the '60s, saxophonist Cedric Brooks didn't choose to make ska, rock-steady and reggae -- he got consumed by the dance culture that celebrated them. Brooks "always wanted to do the jazz situation," he says in the liner notes of Cedric IM Brooks & The Light of Saba, a rich compilation of his rarely heard, stylistically varied mid-'70s work, leading a big band whose previous moniker, the Divine Light, left no doubt as to the music's spiritually awakened path. A higher, more improvised calling had become an inevitable direction.
Brooks already had cut his chops as music director of Coxsone Dodd's legendary Studio One house band (where everyone from the Wailers to Jimmy Cliff made their first hits). He'd inhaled the world-pop fusion of South African trumpet player Hugh Masakela and the Afro-beat of Nigerian revolutionary Fela Kuti. He'd spent time in Philadelphia, molding chaos into songs alongside free-jazz shaman Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders. And with Count Ossie, the paterfamilias of Jamaican percussionists, he'd co-founded the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, a brass-and-drums ensemble that specialized in the island's enlightened folk.
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Brooks' Light of Saba drew on all these to make music indisputably Jamaican in origin, but, with its small battalion of drummers, was also free of Rastafarian rhythmic constraints. Don't misunderstand: The grimy, reverb-thick garage sound of roots reggae plays a massive role here -- on the chunky rock-steady of "Salt Lane Rock," a grounded cover of the Abyssinians' "Satta Massa Gana," and a half-dozen others. But at every turn, the multiple percussionists turn their performances into live dub sessions, or they escape the Caribbean altogether. "Sabasi" jumps from a driving west African bass line into an Afro-funk carried on the waves of a Coltrane-informed tenor sax. "Africa" warmly disco-fies Ghanaian highlife music to sound like the Stevie Wonder of the day. The standard "Nobody's Business" grooves like a Latin calypso treasure on vacation in Senegal. And post-bop pianist Horace Silver's soul-jazz classic "Song for My Father" is about as straight a reading as one can expect from a group of Jamaicans schooled on ska. Like the entire set, it's a jazz situation for a global climate.