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Jazz meets kung fu

Just before the "classic" era of the Black Ark began, Lee Perry produced a trio of albums that are often overlooked by fans but which contain some very special grooves. Musical Bones, Return Of Wax and Kung Fu Meets The Dragon form a kind of loose dub trilogy in Scratch's career. However, these albums are more instrumental reggae than dub, and really defy easy categorization.

The first of these albums is Musical Bones, originally released on the British DIP label in 1974 on a very limited pressing with no track listing. At this time, Scratch was tuning into jazz music and wanted to capture some of its improvisational vibe. He recruited trombonist Vin Gordon, a session musician who Scratch knew from his days at Studio One. Gordon had been a stalwart session man at Studio One for years and had also laid down some excellent tunes for Keith Hudson. Such was Gordon's skill on the instrument that it earned him the nickname "Don D Junior", a nod to the legendary ska king Don Drummond. As David Katz muses in People Funny Boy, "...Gordon's lead reminded that the trombone could express a lot on its own". The sessions were very loose, with the assembled musicians often swapping instruments and changing arrangements on the fly. While obviously meant to be a fusion of reggae and jazz, some of the songs also contain some funky guitar work from Earl "Chinna" Smith and Geoffrey Chung and the spooky, atmospheric keyboard work of Winston Wright, which was a trademark of the early Black Ark sound. Songs like "Fly Away" and "Raw Chaw" are throwbacks to the ska era, with Gordon blowing some rather Drummond-esque riffs. All in all, Musical Bones is a charismatic experiment from Lee Perry and friends.

Return Of Wax would have made a great soundtrack to a 1970s Jamaican cop show.

The next album to be released was Return Of Wax, also originally released as a blank label LP with no track listing. While Musical Bones is a reggae-jazz fusion, Return Of Wax is for the most part instrumental reggae and minimal dub. Musically, it has to be admitted that it is the least interesting of the trilogy, but does grow on you after repeated listening. Despite rather fearsome titles like "Kung Fu Warrior", "Last Blood" and "Dragon Slayer", the mood throughout is funky and relaxed; I always get the impression that it was recorded on a Sunday afternoon. I also get the impression that the songs on Return Of Wax would have made a great soundtrack to a 1970s Jamaican cop show or blaxploitation film. While most of the songs are unique to Return Of Wax, serious fans will take note that "Big Boss" is an instrumental version of Delroy Denton's "Different Experience" with a strange series of false endings, and "Samurai Swordsman" is a dub mix of the famous "Curly Locks" rhythm.

Then came Kung Fu Meets The Dragon, the wild card in the trilogy. While Musical Bones and Return Of Wax are relaxed and straightforward "dubstrumentals", Kung Fu is a spooky and raucous musical trip into the world of martial arts movies and the feverish imagination of Lee Perry. Filled with dramatic doses of echo, reverb, screams, melodica, wah-wah guitar and more, Kung Fu will leave no Lee Perry fan disappointed.

A couple of years earlier, certain producers in Jamaica were releasing tunes with the "Far East Sound", a vibe that had actually begun in the ska era but really evolved in the early 1970s. These were evocative, minor key instrumentals which usually featured the melodica work of Augustus Pablo. Tunes such as "Hap Ki Do" (produced by Leonard Chin) and "East Of The River Nile" (produced by Herman Chin Loy) not only reflected a passion for martial arts movies, but the Asian heritage of the producers. Much of Kung Fu is in this same vein, only much wilder. Clearly the entire album was inspired by martial arts movies. Specifically, "Enter The Dragon" is named after the 1973 Bruce Lee film and namechecks Lee and John Saxon in the spoken word intro; "Black Belt Jones" is named after the crazy 1974 Jim Kelly movie and features kung fu shouts and violent sound effects. Other notable tracks include "Kung Fu Man", featuring a young Linval Thompson on vocals and the startling "Flames Of The Dragon", featuring gruesome screams throughout. Kung Fu Meets The Dragon definitely stands out as one of the most experimental and even avant garde works of Lee Perry's career.

All three of these albums were re-released on vinyl and CD by Justice League in the 1990s but quickly went out of print. All three albums were included on Trojan's Dubstrumentals collection in 2005, including two bonus tracks.

February 2007 (additional material October 2008)