The 16 tracks on this leisurely CD span the rowdy, the regal and the ruminative. They star Ernest Ranglin, who might be called the father of ska. He’s a Jamaican guitarist who can play both pensively and pyrotechnically, and even now, in his early 80s, he’s always tasteful and frequently startling. Ranglin wrote most of the tracks on this expansive project, and the music is sequenced perfectly for a party on a summer night. This is user-friendly music, world-beat style with a pronounced Kingston accent, and one can imagine how Ranglin and his Avilans might wail on this material in a club.
Ranglin’s pensive mode takes over on “Bra Joe From Kilimanjaro,” the warm second track, reprised at the end in “Bra Joe From Kilimanjaro (Home),” an even more relaxed and dreamy take of the same Abdullah Ibrahim tune. And while ska, rocksteady and reggae rhythms dominate, other feels also pertain, like the straight blues of the title track.
You could call Bless Up a jam-band record. While Ranglin is the focus (and a hell of an arranger), the other musicians also work magic. Check out how the saxophones and brass, bottomed by Charlie Wilson’s trombone, swagger atop “O Meets R,” a tune by producer Tony Mindel that could pass for a remix from the Clash’s Sandinista! “Rock Me Steady” features great big Ranglin wah-wah first and rapid-fire jazz guitar lines later, along with Eric Levy’s snaky piano and Inx Herman’s drums.
The tunes are largely midtempo, the arrangements straightforward, the rhythms solid if occasionally predictable. But that isn’t necessarily bad: “Good Friends,” the sentimental track setting the stage for that second, extra-mystical “Bra Joe,” is an album highlight. Nothing wrong with being pretty, a notion Ranglin’s been spreading since he first hit 50 years ago with Millie Small on “My Boy Lollipop,” the world’s introduction to ska. He remains one of that catchy genre’s foremost ambassadors.