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Published: 2012/08/22
by Brian Robbins

Bunny Marrett
I'm Free

Bristol Archive Records

You’re saturated in the vibe of Bunny Marrett’s I’m Free within the first 30 seconds of the title cut: what sounds like a melodica and a flute weave and dance around each other, bumping hips to the lazily-skanked rhythm laid down by the guitar, upright bass, and drums. The music feels like it’s coming to you through thick air, bulging with the wumble-thump of the bass and the unexpected-but-perfect percussion fills. Oh, it’s reggae, for sure – as rootsy and real as you could ask for, with a deep, deep groove – but there are threads of jazz woven through this tapestry of sound, as well. Marrett’s vocal – a simple, powerful declaration of freedom that could be both a personal statement and the anthem of a movement – is delivered with a mix of let-it-fly passion and a bit of that same jazzy coolness that fuels the music. You can’t help but be gathered up by it all.

It’s an impressive recording debut. Especially when you consider that Marrett was 45 years old when he recorded it. In 1986. 26 years ago.

That’s right: Marrett began making music as a child growing up in Jamaica (where he crossed paths with numerous players who would be part of the ska/reggae explosion) and continued to do so after emigrating to England at age 17. He was a natural fit with the developing scene there, made up of fellow ex-pats playing a mix of jazz, soul, ska – and, eventually, reggae. A veteran performer in live settings, you’ll find Marrett’s name listed in numerous album credits from the period, but the one-of-a-kind sessions he led himself were never released, apart from a 12” single in 1981 on the Shoc Wave label, “Times Are Getting Harder”, and its accompanying dub version.

Thanks to the efforts of the good folks of Bristol Archive Records (BAR), Bunny Marrett’s I’m Free has finally seen the light of day, over a quarter of a century after it was recorded – Marrett’s first full-length recording coming at the age of 71. BAR is dedicated to releasing Bristol-based music to the world that has been either been lost in the shuffle of time or never had a proper chance to shine in the first place. If they did no more than introduce Bunny Marrett to the world, they would still have reason to be proud.

I’m Free offers six tracks from Marrett’s 1986 sessions (plus the aforementioned Shoc Wave single and its flip side on the CD version). Marrett’s backing band for the ’86 sessions were The Startled Insects, who have their own unsung legend status in British music history. The Startled Insects’ blend of world rhythms and jazz flavorings provide the ideal complement to Bunny Marrett’s melodic roots tunes.

The album mix is dense, though the tasty, eclectic layers are easily discerned; perhaps dark would be a better word, although not in terms of mood (joy abounds in these grooves) but as in late-night jamming. I’m Free simply feels and sounds like what it was: a group of talented players who weren’t trying to please a label or fit into a trend. Music for its own sake.

“Farm Diggin’” and its companion dub “Farm Dubbin’” are rooted in the soil of Jamaica and Marrett’s memories of his childhood. He sings of banana leaf tablecloths and “corn for everyone” as the drums and bass lay down a wonderfully complex beat that never gets in the way of Marrett’s simple pleasures. At just over the 3-minute mark, a bluesy arc of guitar flashes across the landscape – another unexpected-yet-just-right touch.

Marrett’s “Natural Princess” is a proclamation of love: pure words doled out over a bed of rolling, rumbling groove. And “Jazzy Reggae”/”Jazzy Reggae (Dub)” pay tribute to Bob Marley: Marrett sings of meeting his fellow soulman “standing on a platform, waiting on the Zion train” while The Startled Insects rework the “Kinky Reggae” riddim.

As mentioned, the CD version of I’m Free includes Marrett’s Shoc Wave singles, “Times Are Getting Harder” and “Hard Times Dub”. The 1981 recordings were pre-Startled Insects, offering Marrett’s soulful vocals in a slightly more traditional-for-the-times reggae setting.

Bristol Archive Records has done both Bunny Marrett and multi-genre music fans a great service by releasing I’m Free. Think of it: a 71-year-old reggae artist doing live shows around the release of his debut album.

One can only hope that there’s more Bunny Marrett music to come.

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