Wishbone is the long-lost Canadian debut album by Jackie Mittoo - proving just why he is regularly cited as a leading influence in the establishment of Ska, rocksteady and the boss sounds of reggae. Soulful and blessed with the funk, the twelve tracks here show an artist whose band emit a warmth and textured sound that leaks positivity despite the ominous atmospherics at times. Trained in the classical arts, Mittoo draws a thread between the reggae world and a plethora of surrounding genres - crafting between a fantastically evocative album of sweet music.
Jackie Mittoo was one of the great names in Jamaican music, manning the keyboards for the Skatalites, the Soul Vendors, and Sound Dimension-- three of the greatest house bands of the 60s (and I mean anywhere, not just in Jamaica). He was just a teenager when Studio One boss and producer Coxsone Dodd gave him his break, and by 1968, he was Kingston music royalty, enthroned at the organ and so well-regarded he probably could have had all the work he wanted for as long as he wanted it.
But Mittoo felt the need for a new beginning, and like many Jamaicans, looked northward for it, ultimately settling in Toronto's large West Indian community. It was a fresh start, but with fresh starts come hard work, and Mittoo found himself paying his dues playing anywhere that would have him. When you have the talent he had, getting noticed doesn't take long, and if Mittoo found Toronto unfamiliar and sometimes confusing, he was quickly accepted by lots of people who were going through the same thing or already had.
Summus Records was a small division of a prominent Canadian advertising and marketing firm, run by Jamaican accountant Carl DeHaney-- you can imagine DeHaney's excitement at the prospect of working with one of his homeland's all-time greats. The album DeHaney produced for Mittoo, Wishbone, was an eclectic and above all joyful record that really only failed commercially on account of awful distribution. Light in the Attic has made this lost little gem the latest entry in its excellent Jamaica to Toronto series (look for the clever green, yellow and black maple leaf), and the sound is spectacular.
Far from the stripped combo work Mittoo had done in Jamaica, this album is loaded to the gills with lush orchestration, with Mittoo leading the way on organ and overdubbed piano. The reggae beat lies at the core of the sound, but there's a heavy dose of soul and funk in this music, as well as gospel and easy listening. Pitting members of the Toronto Symphony against Joe Isaacs' snapping drums and Mittoo's roaring organ makes for an entertaining listen, and these mostly instrumental songs are just so damn happy you'd have to be a class-A grump not to smile just a little.
Jamaican music has long nicked little snippets of popular songs from around the world, and Mittoo does plenty of that in his solos here, flirting with everything from "Spooky" and "Spinning Wheel" to Christmas carols and "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da", which of course was Paul McCartney's tribute to ska in the first place. The Beatles riffs come on the bouncing title single, which is so infectious it's easy to see how it become a major Canadian radio hit. The big, schmaltzy orchestration one might expect to clash with the groove-driven ka-chink of reggae actually feels right, and Mittoo doesn't seem at all fazed or overwhelmed working through it.
As great as the instrumentals are, the show is really stolen by four vocal numbers, one sung by Mittoo, the others by an unnamed singer. "Love Life" and "Love of Life" are related in more than title-- they're two parts of the same song, essentially, the former encouraging brotherhood, the latter encouraging you to "try a little happiness" with its gospel-inflected chorus. Mittoo's lyrical approach was all about the affirmative: "There may be days in your life when nothing seems right/ But nothing can change the times when you're feeling bright." Closer "Right Track" is a burbling reggae-soul number with chorus that's catchy as all get-out and a huge orchestral arrangement spiked with funky horns. "Soul Bird", Mittoo's lead vocal turn, reveals him as a pretty decent singer, but it doesn't take Sam Cooke to make this thing memorable-- the opening "got a message, little soul bird," backed up by female singers injecting encouragement, is a monster hook.
Viewed in the shadow of his work in Kingston with Dodd, Wishbone obviously doesn't sound like Mittoo's most important/accomplished/influential/fill-in-the-blank music. But that's not the point. Listened to on its own merits, it's a record that's guaranteed to make you feel better-- "a blast of sunshine from the islands" as the man himself called it. There's confidence in this music, and effusive joy. We can always use a little of that.
-Joe Tangari, January 04, 2007
Everton Paul & Earl Leeder & Joe Isaacs: drums
Brian Atkinson: bass
Wayne McGee & Carl Harvey: guitar
Jackie Mittoo: keyboards
Rob McConnell: trombone
Guido Basso: trumpet
Moe Koffman: flute
Eugene Amaro: saxophone
Maurice Solway & Stanley Kolt & Walter Babiak & Peter Schenkman & Albert Pratz & Berul Sugerman & Joe Sera & Frank Fusco: strings
Dick Smith: percussion
Recording Engineer: Andy Hermant
Mixing Engineer: Andy Hermant
Arranged by Rick Wilkins & Jackie Mittoo
Recorded at Manta Sounds, Toronto, Ontario