If you aren’t familiar with Dave’s saxophone playing history, maybe you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of decades? He has been a gigging/touring musician since his teenage years, playing with HEPCAT, RANCID, STUBBORN ALL-STARS, Willie Williams, Stranger Cole, Glen Brown, Glen Adams, Archie Bell, and for the last 18 years, he has been the featured soloist with NYC’s legendary Ska band, THE SLACKERS. ROCKSTEADY 7, a fourteen year old all-star collective, is the band where Dave is able to showcase his unique style of Saxophone playing with extended Jazz improvisations over Reggae-Ska rhythms. As Dave explains, “I’m a freak stylistically. I’m a southern Californian raised kid who started out playing like Jamaican saxophonists, Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook. Then I moved to New York and got into classic American saxophone like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young, and Illinois Jacquet. Then I went on the road and started to understand the blues. I got into Howling Wolf, Tbone Walker, and Sonny Boy Williamson.”
This Blues influence becomes clear immediately on FRIENDS & ENEMIES. On the first track, “I Can See Clearly Now”, Dave’s solo adds harsh blue notes to the tunes sunny overtones. “Blast Off” is a stomping Jump Blues that recalls early Rock N Roll. “Evil” is reggae blues with a hint of menace in its swaggering groove. Recorded live, without overdubs over the course of 1 day, at Seaside Studios in Brooklyn, FRIENDS & ENEMIES has a direct raw sound. The horns soar above the multi-layered rhythm section led by legendary master Jamaican percussionist, LARRY McDONALD, whose musical history goes from Mento to Ska to Reggae and beyond. This thick, full sound is uncomprimising in both the power and authenticity of its Jamaican rhythms and the adventurous Jazz of its solos. It’s far from the cocktail lounge sound of most Jamaican Jazz hybrids and far from the spastic twists of most contemporary American Ska.
It sounds like Fela Kuti, Burning Spear, the Skatalites, or one of David Murray’s big bands. Making the instrumental accessible through storytelling and fusing the rhythms of Jamaica Ska/Reggae with American Jazz has been the hallmark of ROCKSTEADY 7. As JAZZIZ Magazine commented about his last release, “HILLYARD CAN PLAY!”
The Rocksteady 7 is a musical collective that draws up a pool of the finest ska and reggae musicians in New York and beyond. Here are some of the players that play with the band;
Saxophone/Band leader: David Hillyard;
Percussion: Larry McDonald
Drums: Eddie Ocampo, Benny Herson, Glen Hackett
Trumpet: Rolf Langsjoen, Rich Graiko
Trombone: Phil Cooper,Buford O’Sullivan, Chris “Squantch” Sears
Guitar: Justin Rothberg, Dave Hahn, Jay Nugent
Bass: Dan Jesselson, Sheldon Gregg, Chris Weiggers
Keys: Dave Wake
CRAZY BALDHEAD was started as a studio band in 1997 at Version City by AGENT JAY, guitarist of NYC’s ska/reggae/soul legends THE SLACKERS. Playing Rocksteady, traditional Ska, and Skinhead / Early Reggae, with occasional forays into Punk, Country, and other sounds is what they do best. The band was made up of Version City regulars Eddie Ocampo (drums), Vic Ruggiero (organ, piano), Victor Rice (bass), and Jay on guitar. When Victor Rice departed for Brazil he was replaced by Dan Jeselsohn, and Phil Wartell now shares drumming duty. Other members of the “Brooklyn Rocksteady” scene and worldwide Ska community continue to grace the studio and stage with the band, including Dave Hillyard on sax, Buford O’Sullivan on trombone, and Maddie Ruthless . Lately CRAZY BALDHEAD has become the top traditional Ska, Rocksteady backup band in New York for classic Jamaican artists such as Ken Boothe, Stranger Cole, Patsy Small, and Keith & Tex. The band has released three full-length albums, and the latest “BOOTS EMBRACES” now gets the DUB treatment with a vinyl release on JUMP UP. Get yours today – blue vinyl limited to 250 copies!
Below is AGENT JAY’s very own words from his original Big Tunes campaign – you can see how he has poured his blood, sweat, and tears into “BOOTS EMBRACES” – when he told us he was looking for a label to release these amazing DUB versions we didn’t hesitate for a minute!
The album, ‘BOOTS EMBRACES’, underwent many evolutions during the few years it was kicking around in my head, on paper, and on tape. At first I wanted to make a really old-school Rocksteady, Ska album. I started writing heavily in the Winter of 2008, as I was completing ‘THE SOUND OF ’69’. I didn’t have it in me yet to embark on another full-length album, especially without a full-time lead singer, so I ended up releasing a lot of those tunes piecemeal on ‘THE REGGAE WILL NOT BE TELEVISED’ EP and the ‘TOO MUCH TECHNOLOGY / JUST A MAN’ 7″ with different vocalists as usual.
In 2010, Vic Ruggiero and I had the idea to book a day at Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod’s studio in Brooklyn and just see what happened. We knew Axelrod for years and were both admirers of his studio sound. He has a nice 8-track reel-to-reel tape machine and a really great recording and mixing rig. That session produced ‘CUT BACK’ and ‘DRUMMIN’ FOR DON’ and a few other Ska and Rocksteady tunes that I meant to put on ‘BOOTS EMBRACES’ but didn’t have room for.
Over the next few months the lyrics ringing in my head became increasingly political, the rhythms, more edgy and modern. My conception of the still unnamed record became some kind of Punky Reggae protest album with a danceable Dubby element. Attending a huge Occupy Wall Street labor demonstration on October 5th, 2011 sealed the deal. I heard the chant, “They say ‘cut back’… We say ‘fight back!’ over and over throughout the day and couldn’t get it out of my head. I knew I had found the hook to a rhythm I had recorded with Vic Ruggiero a year before. That night I called Jah Point, Joey Steel, Chris Erazo, and Brukky and told them to come by the next day to record the vocals. ‘CUT BACK’ was born and up on the internet the following day, October 7th. Although released on a split 7” with The Slackers’ ‘VOLUNTEERS’ on Simmerdown Records I knew it would be the cornerstone of the new full-length. It blended the two components I wanted to the album to embody – a hard late sixties Reggae rhythm with an uncompromising political message.
Around this time I became seriously interested in working with Dan “Brukky” Klein of The Frightnrs as a full-time lead singer. I’ve known him for more than a decade but he only recently became a vocalist. His skill continued to develop and I felt he was ready to step out from behind the Jamaican-style patois singing that was his bread and butter. Our long friendship and similar backgrounds made it easy for us to find common musical ground.
While on tour with The Slackers, we were bullshitting in the van one day about “boots and braces”, the ubiquitous skinhead uniform. I forget if it was me or someone else that uttered the phrase “boots embraces” but we all laughed and it stuck with me. It seemed a funny twist on the tough skinhead stereotype to add the word “embraces” with all it’s sensitive implications. Many people I mention the phrase to are puzzled by it’s meaning (as if it even has one). I especially like the way some people ascribe their own meaning to it – a synonym for “boot party” and some kind of skinhead sexual code are among my favorites. To me it pokes fun at the phoniness, commercialism, and superficiality of much of the modern skinhead and Punk scene. It also represents memories of being a kid and wanting to escape all the trendy clones that surround you but still wanting to fit in and be a part of some click. A phrase that can mean wildly different things to different people seemed perfect for an album title so I ran with it.
The pieces were in place so I booked another session at Victor Axelrod’s ‘Don’t Trip Studio’. In the weeks leading up to the session I had another burst of material, this time more personal. I shelved some older songs in favor of fresher ones and settled on the twelve I thought it would be reasonable for the band to learn and record well. Still, I wrote ‘THERE’S SOMETHING’ days before we went into the studio. I got the band – Eddie Ocampo, Dan Jeselsohn, and Vic Ruggiero – together for a rehearsal then two days of tracking in late January, 2013. We got down the dozen tunes we had rehearsed and still had some time left so I taught the band one more simple jam that was an experiment in blending traditional Ska and Afro Beat. We cut some guitar and organ overdubs then dumped the tracks down from analog tape to digital files which I took back to my home studio in Bed-Stuy, ‘Stabby Road’.
I did a bit of editing and my own overdubbing in between tours over the next couple of months then started calling in the other players and singers – Dave Hillyard on sax, Buford O’Sullivan on trombone, Jahn Xavier, Maddie Ruthless, Christian Erazo, Joey Steel, and Jack Wright on vocals. All the while I had been showing Brukky the tunes and working out the lyrical melodies and delivery with him. We would cut vocals one or two songs at a time then I’d hit him with another batch and let him feel them out for a couple weeks. By Summertime I was ready to send finished tracks back to Axelrod for him to mix. I have my own studio and am confident I could make a good sounding record but I really wanted a second experienced set of ears involved and, quite honestly, I knew Axelrod could really put these tunes over the top. So I swallowed my pride and asked him to mix it with direction from me. They’ve been coming back sounding great, a few every month, since then.
So now, here we are in October. The record’s just about done. The artwork and layout are being assembled and I’ll have the last mix in a few days. I’ve poured my heart and soul…and no small amount of money into this collection of thoughts and melodies, beats and bass lines. To me it makes sense. To you it may be a schizophrenic jumble of slogans and sap or a soundtrack to your personal experience you can come back to again and again. I hope you’ll take a chance and find out.
– Agent Jay
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