Infectious, Philly-Style Soul, by Way of Jamaica

Jackie Mittoo

Jackie Mittoo was key to the endlessly compelling rhythmic lock heard on records by Bob Marley and others. hide caption

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Mittoo art

Recording: Wishbone

Artist: Jackie Mittoo

Genre: Soul

Label: Summus, 1971 (reissued by Light In the Attic, 2006)

Talk About 'Shadow Classics'

The commingling of reggae and soul, explored by Mittoo as well as Toots & The Maytals and others, seems like a match made in heaven. What other great recordings blend these styles?

Apparently, helping to develop some of the heaviest pop music of all time wasn't enough for Jackie Mittoo (1948-90). The keyboardist and songwriter got his start at Kingston's famed Studio One during the heady early days of reggae, ska and other Jamaican styles. Along with guitarist Ernest Ranglin and several key rhythm-section players, Mittoo was key to the adhesive, endlessly compelling rhythmic lock heard on records by Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Skatalites (Mittoo was a founding member) and the Soul Vendors, among many others.

But in the late '60s, the keyboardist left Jamaica to live in Toronto, telling friends he was looking for a new start. Wishbone, his first record made in Canada, suggests that his interests ranged far from reggae: He dips into bomping soul jazz ("Soul Bird") and smooth, upbeat instrumental pop — "Groovy Spirit" (audio) is aptly titled — as well as a few tunes that reference The Beatles. (The title track's high-stepping bassline that echoes the one found on "Lady Madonna.") Roughly half the album is instrumental; the best of the tunes with vocals, "Love Life" (audio), features Mittoo's affirming lyrics alongside strings that might have been intended for a Philly soul date.

Though he ventures far stylistically, Mittoo doesn't sever ties with Jamaica: He includes several straight-up rock-steady instrumentals, and even when he's in a heavy soul pocket, the faintest hint of an island bounce remains in these rhythms, with sunshine shooting through them. That tone ought to have been enough to sell Wishbone, but this beguiling and downright visionary blend didn't connect commercially upon its release. Now, more than 30 years and countless stylistic hybrids later, the disc sounds like pure genius — one of the boldest and most cohesive expansions of Jamaican pop ever recorded.

Listen to last week's 'Shadow Classic.'

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