Eight-time Grammy Award winner Stephen “Ragga” Marley — who is currently on an acoustic tour across the U.S. dubbed An Evening With Stephen Marley (through Nov. 17) — will release an acoustic album, One Take Acoustic Jams, on the Marley family’s Ghetto Youths International imprint. The 11-track album, recorded in the living room of Stephen’s Miami home, will be available on all major streaming platforms on Nov. 12 but premieres exclusively below. One Take Acoustic Jams features unplugged renditions of songs from his previously released albums, alongside well-known and obscure gems by his father. Stephen sings lead and plays guitar and percussion on One Take, accompanied by Javaughn Bond on bass, Ranoy Gordon, guitar, Nicholas Laraque, saxophone and clarinet, and Craig Taylor, bass drum and percussion.
“It was just a jam at home, but we set up two mics, that’s why it’s called One Take, because that’s how it was done, in one take,” Stephen told Billboard, calling from Milwaukee, WI, late last week. “We didn’t really plan for an album, so everything is in there, the mistakes too,” he laughed, “but we liked how it sounded so we decided to release it. It is definitely a good vibration, putting something different out there.”
The second son of Bob and Rita Marley, Stephen began playing guitar as a child, following his father, whom he recalls had his acoustic guitar with him at all times. “The guitar was his go-to instrument, he was always strumming away at it so being around him, I saw that the guitar is really at the heart of the music,” he stated. In the summer of 1971 Bob Marley traveled to Sweden to write songs with American singer Johnny Nash for a film Nash was starring in; Nash was managed by the late Danny Sims who signed Bob to his first international publishing and recording contracts. The only music ever released from Bob’s Swedish sojourn is an informal recording of the reggae icon playing his acoustic guitar, delivering stripped down renditions of future reggae classics by The Wailers (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer) included on the 1992 Marley retrospective Songs of Freedom box set.
Forty-seven years after the acoustic recording of his father was made, Stephen Marley’s organic jams sound like they could have been from the same session in Sweden, if augmented with flute, clarinet, saxophone and drums. Of all the musical Marley scions, Stephen’s raspy, emotive tone is most reminiscent of his dad’s, a similarity that’s further enhanced by One Take’s spontaneous, minimalist approach.
The album opens with “All Day” originally recorded by The Wailers for their 1973 album Catch A Fire. “All Day” wasn’t included on Catch A Fire and remained unreleased until the early 1990s; Stephen’s deconstructed version brings a meditative intimacy to the song. Digging even deeper into his father’s catalog, Stephen reworks “Hold on to This Feeling,” by Bob and Rita Marley, a 1970 cover version of Junior Walker and the All Stars’ soul hit “Gotta Hold on to This Feeling”; Nicholas Laraque’s fluttering clarinet in particular conjures the jaunty early reggae rhythm of Bob and Rita’s rendition. Another excavated gem “Real Good Time” is an obscure song even among Bob Marley’s devoted fans because it has never been released. “That was one of the songs my father was working on, but he didn’t get the chance to promote it because he passed (May 11, 1981) but there’s a 1980 recording of him rehearsing it that you can see on YouTube,” offers Stephen. The audio quality of that 1980 recording is muddied but Stephen’s unfettered treatment here, intertwining chiming guitars and sonorous drumming, complemented by a jazzy saxophone break, heightens the song’s haunting melody and words, which go much deeper than the title suggests.
One Take Acoustic Jams spans selections from Stephen’s solo albums (all four have topped the Reggae Album chart) including the title track from the 2008 Grammy Award winning Mind Control, a powerful cautionary tale against “propaganda and lies, is a plague in our lives/it’s mind control.” (Mind Control’s follow up, Mind Control Acoustic, won the Best Reggae Album Grammy in 2010; Stephen has received the Best Reggae Album Grammy three times as a solo artist, twice as producer of younger brother Damian’s Halfway Tree and Welcome to Jamrock and another three times as a member of Ziggy Marley and The Melody Makers, the Marley sibling band formed when he was just six years old.)
“Iron Bars,” written about Stephen and Damian’s brief imprisonment for marijuana possession, rails against all injustices. The swirling flute complementing Stephen’s improvised lyrics and scat singing towards the song’s conclusion suggests the folk/rhythm and blues styling of the late Richie Havens — it’s among One Take’s most riveting cuts. The powerful lyrics to Stephen and Damian Marley’s 2007 searing dancehall single “The Mission,” decrying senseless violence while urging the youths to have a plan for their lives, has even greater resonance in this raw format. The stripped down version of “Revelation Party” (taken from Stephen’s 2016 album Revelation: The Fruit of Life) reinforces the sentiment to never give up the fight but still enjoy life. Whereas the original (featuring Stephen’s son Jo Mersa Marley) felt celebratory, the delivery here is contemplative, almost somber, working toward achieving that elusive life balance.
“We struggle in life, but we have to have a good time also, this is what my father sang, ‘forget your troubles and dance’ and ‘Revelation Party’ is the same kind of song,” says Stephen. “When you share songs in their natural form, you hear them differently, so I just followed my spirit in making the choices of what songs fit this acoustic vibe.” The simple yet exquisite arrangements heard throughout One Take Acoustic Jams highlight the constructs of these exceptional songs and the synergy between the brilliant musicians playing them, but its essence lies in emphasizing the sacred spaces residing between each note.