Some of the most talented historical contributors to Jamaica’s popular music, specifically reggae, have converged time and time again to create world-class productions at Harry J Recording Studios. The 638-square-foot space transformed into a creative sanctuary in the 1970s, when Harry Johnson sold his record shop to invest in what has become a legacy.
With a vision to provide a fully equipped space for musicians on the same wavelength to collaborate, Harry J opened the doors to a world of opportunity; collaborating with Bob Marley and The Wailers on the Catch A Fire and Rastaman Vibrations albums and then striking a deal with Island Records. Burning Spear, Toots, Luciano, Sizzla and Jesse Royal, to name a few recording artistes, have all utilised the space to capture the feeling of an authentic live-music session for their own productions.
It has always existed as a hub for striving musicians to convene and discuss ideas, says Tara Johnson, daughter of Harry J and co-managing director of the recording studio, whose main aim is to keep that element as its core – all the more since her father passed in 2013.
“My brother, Dale, and I want to preserve the rich history of the space, as well as provide similar opportunities like our father did, for new and emerging talent,” Johnson told The Gleaner.
She added: “His spirit is still very much alive with us, and it is a significant force pushing us to carry on. There are a lot more plans to keep the studio alive and make persons aware that it is still operating.”
A curated live jam session which has been dubbed ‘Set List’ seemed to be a remarkable way to reintroduce the studio to the public – where each selected musician receives a specially created list of songs prior to participating, that they study and play as a group on the night.
Johnson spearheaded the long-overdue initiative along with a team of energetic musicians, including Keneil ‘SlogoDrumZ’ Delisser, Shamir ‘Pelle Dan’ Walker and Ryan Esson; and members of Harry J, Shanate Morgan and Kerron Alexander.
The pilot staging on Thursday, October 9, an invitation-only event, was a success and the second leg, held on Thursday, November 7, received an even bigger turnout with all four walls decorated with musicians, music executives, producers, lovers of the craft and recording artistes like Mackeehan and Feluke.
The first group of musicians, Janoy Ellis and Shadeeka Daughma on guitar, Lorenzo West on bass, Andrew ‘Stringy’ Marsh on keyboards, Okiel McIntyre, Oshane Love and Randy Fletcher on Horns, Ramone ‘Dada’ Smith on drums and percussionist Hector Lewis served justice to The Abyssinians with their delivery of Satta Massagana, and to The Whispers with The Beat Goes On. The second group was also upbeat where drummer Johnothan Rankine and guitarist Jevaughn Jones appeared to be guest favourites as they played around with rhythms of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition and Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon.
Mackeehan compared ‘Set List’ to an old-school New Orleans jam session.
“If any musician ever goes to New Orleans or just take a look at it online, it has a vibrant live music scene and this session was a collection of young talent testing their skills with all the genres from funk, jazz, rhythm and blues with reggae, and the energy was unbelievable,” Mackeehan said.
He says he supports the concept of ‘Set List’ “because it is a really good platform for artistic youth to work on their techniques, learn and also educate each other.
“My phone was on silent so that I could pay full attention to the details of each participant. I literally live for the solo moments – Harry J used to do this. Probably the next one should invite students of secondary schools and sort of set an example for the new or next generation of musicians,” he said.