Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Hi-Lites: Exclusive Interview with James Trent

Since 2005 The Hi-Lites have been churning their authentic sounds out of San Diego, Ca. Some have compared their sound to The Skatalites or Bryon Lee and The Dragonaire's big band style of Ska. What you hear is actually original compositions with that same vibrant energy, and enthusiasm as the great originators. The band is led by James Trent who was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions we had for him.

Q: Let me start off by asking you to tell our readers what you think the Hi-lites are all about?

James: The Hi-lites are all about carrying on the musical traditions of the original Jamaican Ska Music Masters of the 1960's, and doing so via new original material that's got really positive, vital, and socially conscious things to say. When the Ska first came about in the early 1960's, Jamaica was a young independent country having just become self-governing after a long political history as a colony of the United Kingdom (Since 1652, 310 years!). The Jamaican people in 1962 were full of pride and joy over their newfound solidarity. The original Ska was thus imbibed with that national feeling of elation, joy, hope, and positivity. Almost everyone I know says of Ska when they first hear it "My god, its such happy music!" and it is! Ska music features the energy and vitality of youth, fused with melodic traditions of Europe and of other countries of the Caribbean, particularly Cuba, and even further back, the ancient rhythmic traditions of Africa, along with the musically-intellectual melodizing and improvising of American Jazz, Rhythm & Blues. Truly a Creole music! The musical heritage of the Ska is exactly as the words emblazoned upon the original Jamaican Coat-of-Arms predicted "Out of Many, One People". Such is the heritage of Ska music, out of many peoples, one music.

The Hi-lites strive to achieve mastery over and play splendid original Jamaican Ska songs, composed in these modern times via the great Jamaican Ska rhythm as played by the great Jamaican masters of the past and present, with a focus on Caribbean and American Jazz melodically and improvisatorially, and with a spiritual focus on the spreading of peace, love, understanding, appreciation for life, and harmony. The ultimate goal of the Band is to achieve an utmost modern Original Jamaican Ska musical style that is recognized by the Original Ska Masters, Ska scenesters, American Jazz enthusiasts, and Caribbean Music aficionados, but most importantly, that our music be of such an ascendant nature that it becomes a musical staple to the entire mainstream music listening public. When this occurs, the Ska will be a powerful vehicle for effecting and assisting change in the world across so many fronts: spiritually, politically, socio-economically, and diplomatically. Yes, initially, a great change in the world created Ska, but now, the Ska will change the world!

We are committed to the Ska rhythm, intonation, melodizing, swinging, harmonizing, improvisation, musicianship, citizenship, and love, sweet love.

Q: This isn't the first traditional Ska band that you've performed in, is it?

James: No, I have had the great fortune to be part of an earlier and very great Jamaican Ska band, "The Inspector".

Q: The Inspector? Can you tell me about that band.

James: The Inspector was a band that I came into in 1996 as a senior in high school. Drummer Paul Touchet and Guitarist Kevin Johansen were introduced to me through a mutual friend who knew I loved the Ska and was looking to get into a band. Initially we worked with Joe Armoguida and Demetrius Patin on Tenor and Alto Saxes respectively. Over the next four years, the band went through many lineup changes that involved 23 different musicians over three years, but eventually developed a core of players that ultimately achieved a high level of Jamaican Ska mastery, and in recognition of this fact, we were granted gigs with the best Jamaican Ska, Rocksteady, and Soul bands of the era, The Skatalites, Hepcat, Allentons, Rhythm Doctors, The Inciters, Chris Murray, Mobtown, See Spot, Yeska, Debonaires , and several other high-class bands from throughout the nation and the world. We gigged throughout Southern California in many settings; night clubs, festivals, parties, showcases, you name it. We logged hundreds of gigs. It was one the best experiences of my life, playing the Ska, every week and weekend, making huge crowds of people dance and sway, feeling the great vibes of positivity and good nature.

All of the musicians in The Inspector cut their teeth as performers in that band, as well as logged time in the studio. SFLB Records, headed by the ingenious and hardworking Rick Brady, released a full-length album for the band, "Ingrid" in 1997 and Executive Produced "Keep it Burnin'" for Steady Beat Recordings in 1998. At the end of our association, we cut a magnificent live Jamaican Ska EP that was never released . A re-mixed version may be released in the near future.

Q: I hear that you met the Hi-lites drummer Pat through the Inspector. How did that come about?

James: This is true. Pat and I have known one another for several years and played together in a variety of settings. The Inspector's tenor sax player, the great Jeff Roberts, introduced us all to Pat, who was one of his friends from school at the time. Pat loved the Ska, and would hang out at our gigs and sometimes rehearsals. He sat in on drums during a few rehearsals for the Inspector as well when Paul Touchet couldn't be present. Pat's love for the Ska has always been apparent, and now that he is drumming for the Hi-lites, it's so great to feel his saucy beats loaded with drive and stylistic Jamaican Ska gravy. Pat's respect for the Original Jamaican Ska is apparent in every tune he plays. You just can't sit still once the man starts a-swingin' his sticks, you've just got to dance. Pat is one of very few drummers in California who truly understand Lloyd Knibb's approach to the way the Ska must be played, with fire, passion, rhythmic solid-ness, but above all, swinging the skanks, yes, swinging them I say!

Actually, some other members of an earlier version of the Hi-lites from a little while ago also came from associations with the Inspector band. Chris Torres, the great pianist, also played with the band during 2006, as did the great multi-instrumentalists Jacob Ruiz and Tom Lewandowski. Jake used to play alto sax and Tom used to play trombone and guitar during the Inspector days. These gentlemen both played guitar in 2006 for the Hi-lites. It was truly great to have these men with us during our initial stages. Actually, Tom ended up coming back to play a few engagements with the Hi-lites in 2007 as well, which was a real treat in many ways.

Q: The band has undergone a number of lineup changes since 2005. I think we were all a bit shocked to learn of the recent departure of the horn section and a couple others. Can you talk about that a bit?

James: This is a long story, but I can try to summarize…Well, it just became clear after our June 2007 tour that some of the members of the band wanted to work as hard as possible at playing the most high-quality Ska possible, while others needed wanted to be more lax about our collective musicianship, particularly, they did not want to spend as much time practicing on their personal instrumental technique nor with the full band as a whole. Several of these ex-band members had gotten too comfortable resting on their laurels, and I had to make it clear to them that this was not acceptable, and that they would need to step up and apply some serious effort in order to become better musicians and better, more hard-working band members.

Those players chose to leave the Hi-lites and form their own band rather than work harder with the Hi-lites; but they set out in their new project initially by hijacking gigs that were originally booked for the Hi-lites, and at those gigs they performed my own personal compositions of original arrangements of Classic Jamaican Ska cover tunes from the Hi-lites' repertoire that I had worked so hard to teach them! I hear they are starting to work on their own material now, which is a good thing. I wish them the best, but I also wish they'd just play their own arrangements! Sorry if that sounds a bit 'not nice', but honestly, they left the band on very unkind terms. These players just didn't put enough energy into working on the music while they were in the band, instead choosing to focus on social politics within the band, and repeatedly trying to wrest control of the direction of the band away from me, which of course I wouldn't allow, since I formed and led the band and wrote all of the material since day one. My hope now is that in their current band, the ex-Hi-lites will realize the value of working hard on both their individual practicing on their instruments, as well as realize the necessity of focussed, driven, and serious ensemble rehearsing. In my experience, this is the only way to make a band sound great, by putting the best effort into your individual and collective musicianship.

Honestly though, the fact that those players left the band is really a great thing in the end, as the players who had always formed the true backbone of the band remained: Those players being myself on compositions, vox, and bass, Pat Owens on Drums, and Claire Hollett on Piano and Hammond B-3 Organ.

The wonderful James Ritts, AKA "the Ska-Jazz Machine" has rejoined us on guitar. James' skanking is the solidest around, and when he goes to take his licks in the improvising, it's one of those things where as a listener you just can't believe his bottomless well of brilliant phrases, laden with swing and feel to boot. We are also now working with a wonderful female vocalist in Ms. Krystal Shinka and a super-hi-quality horn section, comprised of professional Jazz players and Jazz students, all of whom love the Ska, and have a great deal of experience playing it. It's like the universe said to the Hi-lites "Go forth and spread the Ska". Thank you universe! We shall not let you down!

Q: So who has stepped in to fill the gap?

James: The lineup of this band is a veritable who's who in the Southern California Ska music scene. The great singer Krystal Shinka, a spiritual guru who feels the Ska in her heart, has graced us with her rich siren-like voice. I first met Krystal in her days as a serious opera student back in the 1990's. Krystal's tone is totally amazing; you've got to hear it to believe it. Marcia Griffiths is one of her favorite Jamaican lady vocalists.

Then we have the modern Ska-Jazz giant Eitan Avineri on trumpet, who cut his Ska teeth playing in the Allentons, a great LA-based Ska band. Eitan has been involved in so many hi-quality Ska, Reggae, Jazz, and other musical performances with local groups as well as touring Jamaican masters that it's incredible. He is a very active player of the trumpet in many capacities, including being an inspirational teacher to dozens of students in the LA area. I have always dug Eitan's rich, thick trumpet tone and his intellectual solos. The guy is a real force on stage.

Benny Golbin comes next on alto sax. Benny has the facility of Bird on his horn, but with one of the smoothest and sweetest tones I've ever heard an alto player have. He's also an enlightened improvisation enigma. Benny has his own quartet too, and his own compositions are super-hip. I first met Benny when Eitan contacted me to play some gigs with the great Kingston Collective Ska Orchestra back in 2006 and I was blown away. Damn, Benny can really bop around!

Ian Anderson on tenor sax blew my mind when the Hi-lites first played a gig with him back in late 2006 at the Zen Sushi club in Silverlake. Ian plays tenor for the Roundabouts band too, and on that particular night, he blew his sax so beautifully within their arrangement of the great Disney movie tune "When You Wish Upon a Star" as sung by Jiminy Cricket, although this was an instrumental arrangement, featuring Ian on tenor blowing the melody. I took note that night of Ian's broad tone and robust and swinging improvising style. Ian's currently a full-time undergraduate student, studying saxophone performance. I am so pleased to be working with him.

Joe Field on trombone is Ian's band mate from the Roundabouts band. He too is a full-time undergraduate student, studying music. Joe has played in several Jazz collaborations from big bands over the years and is one of the LA area's top young lions on trombone. For his age, his resume looks like that of a lot of players who are twice as old. When I heard of Joe's prowess and first approached him about playing in the Hi-lites, he made it clear to me that he is totally fired up on steeping himself in even more Jamaican Ska history and tradition than he already is! I am very gratified to have Joe with us; he's a great guy whose chops are tops of the pops! More information is available about of each the great Hi-lites musicians at our website:

Q: Wow, that sounds like an amazing lineup. When are your playing next? Any plans for a new album? Tour?

James: It is. It is. I am truly blessed to be surrounded by such talented musicians and can't wait for the world to hear the new lineup. Our first show in several months will be at the Kensington Club in San Diego with Social Green and The Wrong Trousers on Friday, October 19. We also have gigs lined up at the Bluebeat Lounge (Knitting Factory) in Hollywood on 10/30/07 with Chris Murray Combo and the Bohunks and at Que Sera in Long Beach on 11/29/07 . But fans should be sure to check our calendar regularly for the latest Hi-lites show news.
We hope to record a new full-length album in early spring. The album will be recorded live, which is the only real way to record Jamaican Ska in my opinion. It was good enough for the old masters in the early 1960's, and it still holds true today. The Most Honorable and Distinguished Skatalites, the greatest musicians on the planet, recorded live on two-track analog tape from 1962-1965. The sound they got on those recordings was the sound of the room ringing and reverberating with the joy and energy with which they played. We plan to channel that same live energy for our recordings and put out some stuff that will knock everyone's socks off!

We're planning a series of mini-tours to support the album release, with a couple days to the Las Vegas/Phoenix area, couple days to the Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo area, and a 3-4 day run to Santa Cruz, San Francisco , Sacramento/Davis, and Fresno . We hope to make it out to the High Desert Ska Festival in Grand Junction Colorado and a few surrounding locales in the summer too. If all goes well, we may even make it to the east coast by the end of next year. We'll have to just wait and see, but we're all very hopeful. If the readers and fans want the Hi-lites to visit their town, I encourage them to drop us a note and join our mailing list!

Q: Any departing words?

James: Yes. This message is to all of you out there reading this article: Remember to do the Ska day by day in your life throughout all circumstances! Be it a good day or a bad one, easy-as-pie or walking on broken glass, no matter! If you always keep love in your heart, and hit the sidewalk and break into a stride in time with the great Ska beat, then that is a good day, no matter what! Also, be good to one another, honest and forthright, this is another way of doing the Ska in your everyday life. As Justin Hinds first sang it, "Do all the good to all the people you can…try to be a straightforward man". This is the highest message of Jamaican Ska: Love, Equality, & Peace.
Chikki-boom Chikki-boom Chikki-boom! Ska Ska Ska Ska!

For more info please visit The Hi-Lites website

1 comment:

  1. Long live Jamaican Ska music!
    Nice interview


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