You don’t ordinarily expect octogenarians to make great albums. If they do, they usually revisit their earlier work, a victory lap. Count Ernest Ranglin among the rare exceptions. The greatest guitarist ever to come out of Jamaica has a new album, Bless Up (streaming online), which is one of his best, and he’s made a whole bunch of them. It’s has a lot more straight-up reggae than the elegant reggae jazz he’s known for (and basically invented all by himself). It also has a more lush, full sound than his previous album, Avila. That one was recorded on the fly during a break from a reggae festival; this one has more tunesmithing than vamping jams, drawing on the seven decades of Jamaican music that in many ways Ranglin has defined.
Organ – played by either Jonathan Korty or Eric Levy – holds the center on many of the tracks here, Ranglin adding judicious solos, alternating between his signature, just-short-of-unhinged tremolo-picked chords, sinewy harmonies with the keys, nimbly fluttering leaps to the high frets and references to the better part of a century’s worth of jazz guitar. The songs transcend simple, rootsy two-chord vamps. Darkly majestic, emphatic minor-key horn arrangements evocative of mid-70s Burning Spear carry the melody on several of the numbers: Bond Street Express, the opening tune; Jones Pen, which recreates the classic 60s Skatalites sound but with digital production values; and Rock Me Steady, the most dub-flavored track, driven by some neat trap drumming.
Mystic Blue evokes both the Burning Spear classic Man in the Hills and the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry. The bubbly Sivan also sounds like Jah Spear, but from a decade or so later. The title track is a swing tune, more or less, Ranglin’s upstroke guitar over a close-to-the-ground snare-and-kick groove giving away its Caribbean origins. Likewise, the band mutates the bolero El Mescalero with a distinctly Jamaican beat that adds a surreal dimension of fun tempered by an unexpectedly desolate Charlie Wilson trombone solo.
Ranglin plays with a deeper, more resonant tone – and a shout-out to Wes Montgomery – on Follow On. Blues for a Hip King works a stately gospel groove up to a long, organ-fueled crescendo that contrasts with Ranglin’s spare, incisive lines. Ska Renzo, the most straight-up ska tune here, works all kinds of neat up/down shifts with reverb-toned melodica, carbonated Rhodes piano and a sharpshooter horn riff. You Too starts out like a balmy Marley ballad but quickly goes in a darker direction, Michael Peloquin’s restless tenor sax giving way to tersely moody solos from trombone and piano, Yossi Fine’s bass holding it down with a fat pulse. There’s also a pretty trad version of the jazz standard Good Friends and the simple gospel vamp Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro, reprised at the end as a long Grateful Dead-like jam. Clearly Jimmy Cliff’s longtime musical director in the years after The Harder They Come hasn’t lost a step since then.