David Hillyard &
the Rocksteady 7,
United Front
(Do Tell, 2003)

"Just because there's no words in our music doesn't mean it's about nothing. I've always felt that the saxophone is more human than the human voice," David Hillyard writes in the liner notes to United Front. I don't think I would have agreed with him before listening to "Duppy Conqueror," the second track on this (mostly) terrific album by Hillyard and his band, the Rocksteady 7.

"Duppy Conqueror" is a Bob Marley/Lee Perry composition and the absent lyrics read, in part, "Don't try to cold me up on this bridge, Now I've got to reach Mount Zion, the highest region. So if you're a bull-bucker, Let me tell you this, I'm a Duppy Conqueror." Arguably not Marley's best lyrical work but absolutely not missed in The Rocksteady 7's expressive reading of the music.

Unfortunately, Hillyard isn't quite the composer that Marley was. Most of the tracks on United Front can't match the melodic intensity established in "Duppy Conqueror" even though the musicianship and energy displayed on virtually every track is exceptional. The album hits its first major snag with the opening two and half minutes of "Far East," which drag on at a funeral dirge pace before the song finds its groove. But even after it gets going the dissonance of "Far East" becomes more than a little tedious as it sputters along for a full 10 minutes. Ah, for the days of vinyl LPs and their limited total playing time, which lead to a more tightly edited final product. The loss of this track would have made United Front, as a whole, a better album.

Track 5, "Come and Get Me" picks up the pace once again and proves that the Rocksteady 7 is an extremely tight musical unit. This fact is highlighted by the recording style used for the album. United Front is all live, with no overdubs. It's a raw and edgy and surprisingly clean recording with great separation between the various instruments. Obviously, Hillyard and the engineers who produced this album have an enviable command of the techniques of live recording.

By the time Hillyard and the band roll into track 7, the Harry Warren/Mack Gordon composition "Another You," I'm seriously questioning Hillyard's notion that lyrics are unnecessary. This is one of several songs that launch with a spoken intro and I find these reminders of the human voice serve primarily to suggest that something is missing in Hillyard's music. And then suddenly, there it is -- a vocal track. And sure enough, even percussionist Larry McDonald's unpolished singing (He's no Nat King Cole!) elevates "Another You" to a higher and more accessible level.

Of the instrumental originals, "Baby," "Old Days" and "Blues for Dumas" are my favorites. The Rocksteady 7's Sheldon Gregg (bass), Larry McDonald (percussion), Vic Ruggiero (piano, organ), David Hahn (guitar) and particularly the wonderful Eddie Ocampo (drums) provide a solid reggae backbeat over which the jazz stylings of Hillyard (sax, clarinet), Rolf Langsjoen (trumpet) and Chris "Squantch" Sears (trombone) can soar. It's an intriguing, dynamic amalgamation. As Hillyard writes, "It's about 8 musicians getting together and trying to create something bigger than themselves." For the most part on United Front they've succeeded.

Now I think I'll listen to "Duppy Conqueror" again....

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 19 July 2003