Global Beat: Bunny Marrett
Photo by Alex Cater
Seconds into Bunny Marrett’s I’m Free album, you know this is not your average reggae record. Sensual melodica and flute weave around each other while a lazily skanked guitar gently bumps hips with an upright bass to a laid-back, jazz-flavored drumbeat. And then, there’s Marrett’s vocal: delivered with passion and the same jazzbo coolness that fuels the music. The mix captures the sound of dark, thick air, pulsing with the rumble-thump of the rhythm.
Perhaps this the work of some young buck, offering a hybrid blend of jazz/reggae? Hardly. Bunny Marrett is 71 years old. To be accurate, though, he was 45 when he recorded this music. That’s right. The sessions for I’m Free were put to tape back in 1986—26 years ago—and have only seen the light of day now.
Marrett’s musical roots extend all the way back to his childhood in Jamaica. “Me and my buddies would gather up on the pavement outside the bars and listen to the music on the jukeboxes—that’s how we learned,” he recalls.
A veteran performer in his homeland, the 17-year-old Marrett had to start from scratch when he immigrated to England in 1958. His search led him to the Bristol music scene, as he dug the jazz and R&B that flowed around him. Marrett found opportunities to perform at Bristol’s Bamboo Club, jamming with the likes of T-Bone Walker and Jimmy McGriff. But the now-married Marrett also needed to earn a living. He trained to be an electrician, although work wasn’t easy to find.
In the meantime, Jamaica was giving birth to reggae and one can’t help but speculate that if Marrett had remained in Montego Bay, then he might have been part of that early wave of popular artists like Desmond Dekker. Reggae eventually made its way to the U.K. where Marrett got to experience the music of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Burning Spear.
At the age of 40, Marrett had an epiphany: “That’s when I realized that music wasn’t a choice—it was a necessity, man. That’s what I was born to do,” he says. “I had to do it or die.”
Marrett eventually crossed paths with multi-instrumentalist/producer/engineer Richard Grassby-Lewis—perhaps better known to the world as UK Scientist—and a member of the session band The Startled Insects. Grassby-Lewis suggested that Marrett lay down some studio tracks with the Insects; he added noted jazz drummer Tony Orrell to the mix, and the music found on I’m Free was born.
A casual approach made for free-form jamming, it also meant that once the sessions were over, The Startled Insects moved on to other things and Marrett settled back into a very low-key existence. “I was married to my music. There was a lot of pain, a lot of frustration—but I knew that was my journey to make,” he reflects.
Fast-forward a quarter of a century to the efforts of Mike Darby, dedicated to resurrecting the music of the Bristol reggae scene through his Bristol Archive Records (BAR) label. An early BAR compilation release included a Marrett track from a long-forgotten 1981 studio session. Interested in hearing more of Marrett’s music, Darby tracked him down.
“Bunny had this old cassette of material and it blew my mind—roots reggae with this jazz thing going on,” says Darby. “At first, we thought the original masters had been destroyed, but Tim Norfolk of the Insects found them.”
One key to BAR’s approach is that they are dedicated to offering archival releases with the total cooperation of the artists involved. “I had a gut feeling about Mike—he was genuine and wanted to do something good with the music,” Marrett says. “Mike’s done a lot for us. He’s a good lad.”
Darby is humble in his response: “I won’t lie. It is quite rewarding to make a brilliant-looking record, deliver it to a 71-year-old man who’s never had an album released and see his face light up.
“Our cash flow is always tight—we spend a lot to make the albums sound and look as good as possible,” he continues. “But to see the look on Bunny’s face, you know it’s worth doing.”
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