Royals: A review of Two Colors by Dean Fraser & Ernest Ranglin
The last review I wrote prior to this one (and it isn’t up yet, surely) was for a random compilation done by my favourite label of all time, Xterminator Records. Along with, of course, the legendary Philip “Fattis” Burrell, one could well make the case that the driving musical force behind the outfit in its heyday was the equally esteemed Dean “Cannon” Fraser. The compilation I just mentioned, for example, has eighteen tracks on it and Fraser’s work is present on all eighteen tunes. That’s just one, I could go downstairs and reach into the boxes and bins where my physical music collection is these days and I am quite sure that virtually (if not -) ALL of the Xterminator releases I’d pick up would feature the handiwork of the famed saxophonist, writer, arranger, backing singer, director and producer in one way or another (AND, I just happened to have an old Turbulence album, Words Of Wisdom from 2004, nearby and guess who plays on that as well). Had he not been around, maybe a large group of people would have taken his place and done the work or, more likely, we would have not enjoyed the level of vibes that we have, given his tremendous contribution. That was just at Xterminator. Fraser, of course, has gone on to be incredibly instrumental in the careers of many who have come later, such as the aforementioned Riley, Etana and, of course, Duane Stephenson. Fraser has also been keen on furthering his own career and he’s released quite a few projects of his own including Flat Bridge from just last year.
Fraser would begin his career sometime during the 1970’s, some THIRTY years following the musical beginnings of one Ernest Ranglin. As of this writing, some six days ago the master guitar player turned NINETY YEARS YOUNG. Having began as a teenager, he has made music his life’s work and has been giving us wonderful output for the better part of SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS! While I’m not at all certain what would have happened had there been no Dean Fraser (maybe the music wouldn’t have been so good (it wouldn’t have) and maybe I wouldn’t have decided to write about it in the first place and maybe you wouldn’t be sitting there right now, reading this). Ranglin has turned in a career, both as a solo artist and an as a musician, which sees him with very little in the way of peers and, clearly, he is one of the music’s longest serving and most decorated of operators (just to drive that point home even harder: Ernest Ranglin has been making music for around seventy-five years – were Bob Marley alive today, he would be seventy-seven!). I’ve always thought that when you have people like Fraser and especially Ranglin given his age, that is SO important that you honour them while they are still with us and capable of appreciating and seeing just how much they mean to you and, most thankfully, these two pillars have come together and given me and You and anyone else the opportunity to do just that and they’re probably celebrating us just as much.
Two Colors comes to us via the also well acclaimed and qualified Tad’s Records (who also did the aforementioned Flat Bridge in 2021). If I read the press notes correctly (probably didn’t) the project came about from Tad, himself, Tad A. Dawkins Sr., having the long desire to work with Ernest Ranglin and, in order to make that happen, he would go through Dean Fraser, a large fan of Ranglin’s and someone who wasn’t terribly difficult to convince (he actually said that he had wanted to make this album years prior), with…. that chunk of time we all spent in the house about a year and a half ago providing the perfect opportunity to get things in motion. Fraser takes head production credit alongside Tad A. Dawkins Jr. and, as you would suspect and to the shock of absolutely no one with at least remotely functioning ears, Two Colors is a dazzling, literal musical master class of an album. Let’s dig into it!
Coming in with a solid twelve tracks, Two Colors plays out over the course of sixty-four minutes which averages out at about five minutes and twenty seconds per tune. Things like that always get my attention on instrumental albums because I think one of the biggest joys on sets like these is hearing how the music develops, maintains and changes throughout its course. When you have a vocalist, they can do more sudden things that are easier to appreciate (if you have someone do that same thing on an instrumental, you’re likely to end up feeling like you’re listening to two different songs) in short bursts, but when you have the music alone, you really need time to FEEL it (or maybe that’s just me???). That is particularly the case in linking together Ernest Ranglin and Dean Fraser on Two Colors (you’d hate for there to be two-something and three-something minute long songs all over the place here), which actually begins featuring the only vocals that you’ll hear on the album, courtesy of Big Youth, on the initial single, De Ranglin. If you picked it up and you were looking forward to the music (and you were), don’t worry: Big Youth doesn’t harm the vibes at all and he doesn’t stick around long either (I get the imagine in my head that he wanted to do more, but then he heard it and he just did what we’re doing, which is to sit back and enjoy). De Ranglin is golden. It is GORGEOUS from beginning to end. With such a title, I expected the guitar to dominate in the sound.
Dominate is too strong of a term for what happens here, but Ranglin’s mastery is highlighted in a major way and, later on, it’s Fraser turn to dazzle and he does not disappoint in the tune’s latter stages (he does dominate the backend of De Ranglin). EASILY one of the finest efforts and an easy choice for a single. Rangos was another title which had me envisioning a guitar-heavy composition, but what happened in this case was even more surprising than a nod from Big Youth. This track has a very OPEN…. almost cabaret/Big Band-ish type of vibes to it but it settles into its groove in its early middle portions and you completely lose track of it (I have developed the habit of, when reviewing instrumentals, just playing the song over and over again while writing about it (it REALLY helps) and I probably got through Rangos three or four times in just these two or three sentences). I would tell you, heavy Reggae head, to spend more time on this one before passing judgment because chances are that it’s better than you’ll think after your first or second listen.
Papa R is another one with a somewhat bigger sound to it (not as much as Rangos, however) and I’m going to say something in this case that I may not for the remainder of Two Colors: Papa R sounds HAPPY. It sounds like it was born in a happy place under happy circumstances (my Wife says it sounds like a Christmas song). Ranglin does truly shine on here (he shines everywhere) in a more pointed way. It’s subtle and not very glaring, but a lot of nice things happen behind a horn leading the way. Two Colors finds a peerless vibes within its next two selections, Mi Nuh Know and Sam-Fi, respectively.
The former is the best tune I hear on the album. It is STUNNING! Following more ‘assertive’ material just ahead of it, Mi Nuh Know calms things down into this golden bout of serenity. I often listen to things like this and find myself thinking about (and hoping for) a vocalist taking on the music that I hear, but when I heard Mi Nuh Know, the conclusion I came to it that it was the exact opposite: Had you put a singer on top of it (even a really good one. I’m thinking Luciano in this case for some reason), it would be the type of song where I would wish I could hear a clean instrumental of. So beautifully slow-paced and perfectly steered, Mi Nuh Know may just be the chunk of music I’ve heard in the first half of 2022. Sam-Fi may not quite soar to those heights, but it doesn’t come close to having a foot on the ground either. It’s Fraser who gives the strongest boost to my ears, but Ranglin compliments him outstandingly (it’s almost like he has a ‘verse’ on the song) when he does chime in.
It is Clara’s Heart charged with both keeping the quality high from the previous selections as well as putting a bow on the first half of Two Colors and it does adequately in those cases. Fraser, for his part, kind of ‘sings’ on the saxophone (and you’ll know immediately what I mean if you’ve heard it), while Ranglin provides such a COOL backing that you don’t even notice it for the most part, but I guarantee that were it not there, you’d think something was missing. As it stands, nothing is missing from what is the longest tune on the album at six minutes and nine seconds.
The other six minutes + giant here, the absolutely delightful Joshua, also has its moments (thankfully. It would be terrible having to listen to NO MOMENTS for six minutes and six seconds). If you’re looking for something with just a bit more fire to it, Joshua is definitely one to get you up and moving just a little and its fits the bill. I also must mention (I’m contractually obligated!) a nice interspersed drum in there on Joshua. A drum is constant, but a pronounced one comes in very infrequently, yet you well notice it when it does. The meat to the bread of Joshua and Clara’s Heart is our title track (that is a WONDERFUL way to start a sentence and you know it!) and I got here and, for some reason, I was thoroughly convinced that I knew this tune from somewhere. As it stands, however, I’m pretty sure it’s new although I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a remake/take on an older track.
Regardless of its origins, Two Colors is lovely! What sticks out here, as the title would suggest, is how evenly played things are. It almost seems as if the point was made to have one solo followed up soon thereafter by the other early on and later on we get a sound which I can’t describe (it almost sounds like a xylophone). Whatever it is, it comes in as a very nice addition, particularly complimenting Ranglin’s work extremely well. You take a full listen to the title track because it goes in a few different directions.
Speaking of being varied, check Lighting from the East as well. I want to say that this was at least inspired by the Satta Massagana Riddim, but I don’t know that for sure. It is MAMMOTH and I almost hope that it was (and I wouldn’t mind a sequel where Ranglin & Fraser did mine some classic riddims together in this style). I’m currently thinking that many a more deep Reggae fan will hold ‘Lighting from the East’ as their favourite and my ears definitely jumped the first time I heard it and they still do.
I was wrong back when I mentioned for Papa R that I may not call another selection on Two Colors ‘happy’ because that is also the first word that comes to mind when I dive into another big highlight here, Playing Twins. Though it isn’t quite as joyous as Papa R (but it is better, actually), this song brought a big smile to my face after its big beginnings and then when it kind of sits down and spreads out – developing into this COMFORTABLE one-drop, with both players touching around it.
The dizzying Unknown Melody is the only set on this album that checks in at less than four minutes long (only by a second though) and, after listening to it about five times or so, I’m convinced that they got the length just right. That isn’t to say that Unknown Melody isn’t nice (off the top of my head, it’s no worse than my fourth favourite song on this album), it’s just the opposite. Listening to this piece, I almost felt like I was listening to a vocalist who had written lyrics and it took them EXACTLY that amount of time to make their point. They put it all together, gave the music its fair time in the spotlight and wrapped it up in this DELICIOUS package, calling it Unknown Melody.
Sending us on our way from Two Colors is another of its finest efforts, the kind of old school and Blues washed, Nuh True. This is a situation where Fraser and Ranglin (who I have typed as “RANGLINI”, frustratingly throughout this entire review for some reason) each take 50% of the time in the spotlight: They both THRILL. What results is one COOL piece of vibes and, again, one that I’m anticipating will get a major reaction from more passionate Reggae fans. Oh…. and if they wanted to put a vocalist atop Nuh True at some point (like maybe Duane Stephenson), I ain’t complaining!
Overall, I just told you all that stuff ^, but you didn’t need me to because you knew precisely what this album was the moment you were aware that it existed. “An entirely instrumental set featuring the work of Dean Fraser & Ernest Ranglin” is going to speak volumes for itself for anyone familiar with the work of the duo (and when you also add on that it is for Tad’s Records, that means even more in terms of the amount of CLASS you should be expecting), but that is not to say that Two Colors
does not offer a surprise or two.
In retrospect, one of the most pleasant surprises that I found is just how ‘broadly specific’ it is (if that is possible) (and it probably isn’t). What I mean is that a release like this is obviously not only going to after Reggae fans, but it also is likely to find an audience in that fortunate Jazz head who finds themselves having clicked an extra two or three pages out of their comfort zone. That person, whoever they may be, will be damn pleased by what they stumble upon and, perhaps, they’ll continue on and find a reason to stick around with us.
Regardless of who may find their way to Two Colors and which course they may take to arrive here, what they will find is a union of two bona fide masters of the art who have been so crucial in making the music as we know it. This is an opportunity to celebrate the contributions they have made and do so in a most BEAUTIFUL fashion.