In this article, I am going to return to one of my favorite types of music, dub reggae. This article is about one of the best saxophonists in reggae music, who played on numerous recordings, and worked with some of the greatest reggae musicians ever. Amongst the artists he worked with were Bobby Ellis, The Skalites, The Aggrovators and Sly and Robbie. He worked with many producers, including the legendary King Tubby, Bunny Lee, Duke Reid and Clement “Coxson” Dodd. His name is Tommy McCook, and the album is Brass Rockers which was recorded by Tommy McCook and The Aggrovators.

Tommy McCook was born in Havana, Cuba in 1927. Aged six, he moved to Jamaica. When he was eleven, and a pupil at the Alpha School in Jamaica, he started to play the tenor saxophone. Later, McCook would become a member of Eric Dean’s Orchestra.

When he was twenty-one, McCook was booked to play a concert in Nassau, in the Bahamas. After the concert, he eventually settled in Miami, Florida. When he was living in Miami, he first heard the music of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. This would have a profound affect on McCook, and led to a lifetime love affair with jazz music.

In 1962, aged twenty-nine, McCook headed back to his adopted home of Jamaica. Once settled there, he was asked by a number of producers to appear on some of their recordings. One of the first of these recordings was a jazz session, for producer Clement “Coxson” Dodd. These recording were eventually released under the title Jazz Jamaica.

November 1963, saw McCook record his first ska track. This was a version of the Ernest Gold track Exodus. By coincidence, other members of the band who performed on Exodus would become members of The Skalites, of which McCook would be a founding member in the spring of 1964.

The Skalites recorded their first album at the Studio One recording studio, Clement “Coxson” Dodd’s studio. Studio One was later referred to as the Jamaican equivalent of Motown. Ska Authentic was The Skalites debut album. After the release of the album, they toured Jamaica extensively. The Skalites are credited with  inventing ska music. Throughout their career between 1964 and 1965, the group recorded with some of Jamaica’s finest producers. This would include Clement “Coxson” Dodd, Duke Reid, Prince Buster and Leslie Kong. During their short career, they played in sessions with Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Wailers and Desmond Dekker. August 1965 saw the group play their final concert. After this, the group split, becoming two groups Rolando Alphonso and The Soul Vendors and Tommy McCook and The Supersonics. In 1983 the group reformed, and for the following fourteen years, would tour and record.

In the 1960s’ and 1970s’, Tommy McCook worked with many of the top reggae artists and musicians. One producer he worked with was Bunny Lee. Lee’s house band were The Aggrovators. This consisted of whatever musician Lee was using at the time. Many of reggae’s greatest artists have been a member of The Aggrovators. McCook was a member, and so were Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespear, Jackie Mittoo and Aston Barrett. It was with The Aggrovators, that Tommy McCook recorded Brass Rockers in 1975. Brass Rockers was produced by Bunny Lee and mixed by King Tubby. The Aggrovators would also record with Yabby You on both version sides and extended disco mixes. McCook would collaborate with Yabby You on the album Tabby You Meets Tommy McCook In Dub, and other albums.

McCook did not work exclusively for one producer. He would work with many of Jamaica’s best known producer. One producer McCook worked a lot with, was Duke Reid. McCook featured on many of Reid’s productions. He directed Reid’s house band The Supersonics. 

At Channel One Studios owned by Joseph Hoo Kim, McCook would often feature in the studio’s house band The Revolutionaries, which included Sly Dunbar on drums and Robbie Shakespear on bass. The Revolutionaries worked with the great and good of reggae music. This would include Black Uhuru, Tapper Zukie, The Heptones and John Holt.

Throughout his career, McCook worked with many producers and artists, and his saxophone sound graced numerous recordings. He was a truly gifted musician, one who left his mark on reggae music, and without his saxophone playing, many of these records would not have been as good as they are. Sadly, Tommy McCook died in May 1998, aged seventy-one.

Now that you more about Tommy McCook’s life and career, I will now tell you why Brass Rockers is such a good album. Brass Rockers opens with A Dancing Dub. The track begins with drums echoing, and McCook’s saxophone playing on top of the rest of the arrangement. It is a bright, breezy track, where echo is used to good effect, slightly distorting everything but the saxophone. McCook’s solo is easily the highlight of this great opening track.

A Version I Can Feel With Love has a summery feel and sound. Like A Dancing Dub, the effects are used subtly. They don’t over distort or destroy, the drum and percussion, merely changing the sound slightly. On the track, the drums are crisp, loud and right at the front of the mix. They compete with the saxophone for your attention. Once again, the drums, percussion and piano, play second fiddle to McCook’s masterful saxophone playing. 

A Lovely Melody, has a different sound totally. The drums are duller at the start, and then fall away towards the back of the mix. This leaves the way for the tenor saxophone to dominate the track. Then the drums move towards the forefront on the track, and are loud and proud, with just the right amount of echo and delay. McCook saxophone is crisp, it rasps, he plays a great solo, demonstrating why he was so in demand, by so many producers. 

The Mighty Gates of Goza has a very different start. It sees the drums and other instruments distorted. That only lasts momentarily, then the track opens up. The track chugs along with McCook playing a solo, and behind him the drums are twisted and distorted, with Bunny Lee deciding it’s time to use his box of tricks. He has applied delay and echo to distort the sound. More than on previous tracks. For the first time, Lee gives the saxophone some delay, this makes the track sound much more like a traditional dub track. This is one of the best tracks on the album.

Bongo Man Dub sees a great drum sound on the track. The track begins with drums which chug along, and the Bunny Lee gets to work on them, transforming their sound with his effects, primarily delay, and a bit of echo. Drums are accompanied by McCook on saxophone. As usual McCook’s saxophone playing is superb, dominating the tarck. He blows the saxophone at a fairly frantic pace, never leaving much space in his solos. Again, Lee has decided that McCook’s saxophone needs some delay, to change the sound. This works well, softening the sound slightly, as the tenor saxophone can sound harsh on the high notes. Overall, a well performed and produced track, mixed brilliantly by King Tubby.

True Believer In Dubs starts with flute and drums, and has a very traditional reggae sound. Another change is McCooks style. Here is playing is much more restrained. This is a good thing. He doesn’t dominate the track, and other musicians get the chance to shine. It would be a shame if they weren’t as there are some great musicians on the album. This track, albeit a different style, is a great track.

The tempo increases on the next track, yet meanders along nicely. Spacious drums and soulful saxophone playing are what The Duke of Dubs is all about. It is a gorgeous slice of Jamaican sunshine. The sound is uncomplicated, and almost isn’t compromised by the effects. It is, essentially, a traditional reggae track, and a good one at that.

On The Big Bass of Dubs the tempo takes a drop. Drum, guitar and saxophone all play major parts in this track. McCook takes the initiative, leading with the saxophone, the drums working around his playing. This works well, and so does the sparing use of effects later in the track. It tricks up the sound slightly. The Big Bass of Dubs is a good song, with some lovely rhythms and a great melody.

The next track on Brass Rockers is Behold Dis Ya Dub of Class. Drums start the track, and quickly gain a spacey sound. McCook blows his saxophone, keeping the sound loud, crisp and clear. Behind him, the drums provide a backdrop, however, they struggle to be heard, drowned by McCook. This is a shame, as they could help develop what is, essentially a pretty bland track. It is repetitive, the melody although catchy, and well played, does nothing for me. It has too much of a jazz influence, and this drowns the reggae influence. Even Bunny Lee and King Tubby, a formidable duo, can’t rescue this track from mediocracy, with the use of some delay.

Thankfully, Dance With Me is a vast improvement on the previous track. This is a much better track, with a much more traditional dub reggae sound. There is much more use of effects here than on many tracks. They seem to be used to transform the drum sound mostly, the saxophone is almost untouched. On Dance With Me, there is much more space than on this track than others. Dance With Me is a vast improvement on the mundane and mediocre Behold Dis Ya Dub of Class. Thank goodness.

A Gigantic Dub is the penultimate song on Brass Rockers. Here Bunny Lee and King Tubby have decided it’s time to use their effects a bit more. This is to the benefit of the track. Drums are delayed and distorted, this gives the track a more authentic sound. Even McCook’s saxophone is given the Bunny Lee and King Tubby treatment. This is much more like what I would expect on a dub album. I keep wanting them to take a track by the scruff of the neck and really add delay, echo, reverb to a track, distort the life out of it. That, sadly, never happens, and this has to suffice. However, this works here, and makes this track a much better track.

Brass Rockers ends with The Gorgan of Dubs and Horns. This is a track with a huge jazz influence. McCook plays a great solo, it’s melodic and catchy. However, he somewhat spoils the track when he decides it’s time to improvise and thinks that it would be a good idea to add an excerpt from pop goes the weasle, a children’s nursery rhyme. Bad idea. It’s not big, it’s not clever. It detracts from what was shaping up to be a good track, beautifully played, with just a modicum of effects used. Sadly, the track goes down in my estimation, and is a rather disappointing way to end a good album.

Brass Rockers is a good album, one that is interesting when compared to other dub albums I have reviewed. It does not feature the heavy use of effects that other albums do, and this is both a good and bad thing. It is nice to hear the some of the saxophone solos untouched by affects, but on other tracks, the use of some delay or echo would not go amiss. Likewise the drums. Although delay is used, and echo less so, I would have loved to hear more delay and echo used, to transform the sound, maybe lessen the predominant jazz influence on some of the tracks. It’s not that I don’t like jazz, I do, and I have many jazz albums in my collection. I just feel that certain tracks could be improved by unleashing the effects. 

However, Brass Rockers is an album that anyone who likes, or is interested in reggae, should buy. Don’t be put off by the jazz influence, there is still a huge reggae influence on the album. Tommy McCook was a hugely talented musician, and on this album, he is backed by some wonderful musicians. They have produced some great track. Overall this is a good album, of the twelve tracks on the album, I would say that ten of these tracks are quality tracks. So if, having read this article you are thinking about buying this album, I would suggest that it deserves a place in your record collection. Incidentally, this album is now available as part of a four disc set on Greensleeves Records Evolution of Dub Volume 2-The Great Leap Forward. Standout Tracks: A Dancing Dub,  A Version I Can Feel With Love, The Mighty Gates of Goza and Dance With Me.


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