Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Jimmy Cliff, 'The KCRW Session'

Just over a year ago, reggae forefather Jimmy Cliff released Rebirth.

The recording, which then won a Grammy Award, was more than just the comeback project its title suggested. It was one of last summer's most gloriously invigorating albums — a work that encapsulated all of reggae's boundless optimism but also kept a wary eye on a world in turmoil. Most of all, though, Rebirth was a testament to a singing voice instilled with a sense of R&B-infused joy and gospel-like fervor that has beautifully ripened over the decades.

As part of the promotional duties surrounding Rebirth's release, Cliff performed a live acoustic set for the popular radio show Morning Becomes Eclectic from KCRW in Los Angeles. It's pretty much standard for artists to make such visits to radio and television stations, even to record stores, to plug new music. But judging by The KCRW Session, a no-nonsense nine-song, 35-minute document of the Los Angeles radio date, Cliff was clearly not holding back even though the arrangements that now draped his majestic songs were stripped of their electric ensemble gloss.

For The KCRW Session, nothing exists but the rhythmic sway of two acoustic guitars (played by Cliff and accompanist Ben Peeler), a catalog of tunes that span 40-plus years and that effortlessly expressive voice.

The latter, we discover on the opening Trapped, is as rapturous as the one that usually takes the stage with the full orchestration of a band and back-up singers. Just listen to the three-alarm wail that Cliff lets loose during Trapped's near-wordless chorus. The studio walls at KCRW had to have been shaking.

There is little if any rhythmic compromise in these acoustic rewrites. A one-two-three punch of World Upside Down; Wonderful World, Beautiful People; and You Can Get It If You Really Want all exhibit profound groove. Sure, the sway is lighter than the band-generated propulsion of their original versions. But the lyricism and soul shine just as vividly.

Perhaps the defining moment of The KCRW Session is the Cliff classic Many Rivers to Cross, a song that broke ranks with reggae's appealing but confining rhythmic convention decades ago. Essentially a hymn, the song's mixture of solace and sadness remains quietly disarming. As Cliff's voice cracks ever so slightly at the end, what we hear isn't so much a technical imperfection as an emotional blemish brought on by age and experience. Cliff has every right to wear such a blemish proudly.

If Rebirth was the most unexpected party album of last summer, The KCRW Session is the least obvious after-party record of this summer. This is what you turn to when the guests are gone and there is just enough of the evening to savor and groove to on your own.