Western Standard Time are more than just a big band – although they are indeed a really large band with well over two dozen members on stage at a time. The 25-piece ska orchestra and Skatalites tribute band is dedicated to bridging the gap between traditional ska, jazz and swing with a who’s-who of Southern California musicians and an ear for arrangements.
Taking its name from a foundational tune “Eastern Standard Time,” WST’s Duke Ellington-esque swing is an inspired take on traditional ska, taking the genre’s big sound to even greater heights. Formed from the vestiges of Southern California’s thriving ska and reggae scenes from the late ‘80s-early aughts, WST’s big band arrangements can include up to four trumpets, five saxophones, four trombones, upright bass, piano, rhythm guitar, a rhythm section, drums and Latin percussion.
With the region’s deep well of talent and history of subculture, Western Standard Time could only have formed here. “The West Coast, especially L.A. is sort of coveted in that people from all over the world look to see what’s happening in L.A. from the traditional ska and reggae scene,” says founding member and trumpet player Eitan Avineri, who’s played in The Allentons, Kingston 10, Mobtown and other local ska groups.
In 2011, Avineri and saxophonist/arranger Benny Golbin wanted to create an all-star recording project dedicated to the real roots of the second and third-wave groups that were popular at the height of the local scene. Goldin charted 10 arrangements as a tribute to The Skatalites, a 10-piece Jamaican (mostly) instrumental group that first recorded in 1964 and were the pioneers of an infectious, horn-driven sound called ska.
“The original ska stuff was all improvised. It had the same idea [as jazz]… it was their own organic, island swing to it,” Avineri says. “What we do is we reimagine and recreate the likeness of the music but we put a completely different spin on it.”
In addition to backing now legendary artists such as Toots and The Maytals and The Wailing Wailers, The Skatalites featured musicians who were famous in their own right, including saxophonists Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso, trombonist Don Drummond, and helped give rise to producers Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid. Stateside, Avineri and Goldin began reaching out to friends and colleagues to create a fitting dream team.
Among the original musicians on the band’s first album, the 10-song Tribute To The Skatalites Vol. 1, were bassist and scene impresario Joey Altruda, former Aggrolites guitarist Brian Dixon, ex-Sublime and Mobtown sax player Brian Wallace and percussionist Fredo Ortiz. Vol. 2, released three years later in 2015, also featured vocals from Greg Lee of Hepcat and Vic Ruggiero of New York’s The Slackers.
“We had [trumpeter] Kincaid [Smith] from Hepcat on the album, Fishbone’s lead singer sang a song with us. The last album was 39 musicians. It cast a wide net but it was really star studded,” Avineri says, adding that WST also drew musicians who weren’t previously involved in ska or reggae. “We also had a lead trumpet player for over 500 motion pictures.” The saxophonist from War also appeared on the first album, along with Danny Janklow, a young sax player considered to be one of the next generation of jazz stars.
The first volume of Skatalites covers was recorded without a single rehearsal. Avineri attributes the album’s success, and its tight orchestration, to the talent of the musicians chosen for the project. “Once it came out, I was getting hit up by 50, 60 different guys all wanting to be a part of it, as well as producers from as far away as Japan and by current members of The Skatalites,” he says.
“I loved the depth of the arrangements that Benny had created and Eitan’s vision for musical growth and have been on board with the band ever since,” says Sean Billings, who’s played trumpet with Brian Setzer Orchestra, Jungle Fire and Gloria Trevi. “As a trumpet player, I’ve always had a fondness for big band and ska music. I feel Western Standard Time really compliments both styles by paying respect to each art form’s unique characteristics.”
Thousands of people attended Western Standard Time’s first performance in 2012 at Hollywood & Highland, which had been heavily promoted on KJZZ. Avineri credits the success of the show to just to ska fans, but the jazz heads who came out to experience a new sound.
“Part of it was is people who really remembered that scene and how big and vibrant it was, and sort of longed for something like that. Even people who weren’t old enough at the time had heard about it and wanted to experience that magic,” he says. “[Jazz lovers] were interested in this new version of a mambo orchestra or Caribbean big band. At the time I think there were maybe two [ska orchestras] in the whole world before us, and never really in America.”
Although Southern California was the focal point of third wave ska – an iteration of the original style that was faster, often with punk influences — Avineri says he hopes WST will redefine ska for an audience of outsiders.
“[Some musicians] heard the word ska and associated it with third wave ska bands like Reel Big Fish and bands from Orange County. They thought it was all amateur players and young kids playing clubs,” he says, adding that he has lots of respect for the ska bands who put OC on the map. “Now they’re looking at this band as phenomenal players with world class arrangements. In some ways it’s almost a better description to consider us a Caribbean jazz big band, to give it full weight and throw it back to original roots.”
“It really does seem to be a unique project,” adds Billings, who grew up in Mission Viejo. “As far as Orange County and SoCal, I would hope the band continues to be an example of the great variety of music that musicians here have to offer.”
Although the band experienced unexpected success with multiple international performances and much audience love, WST was struck by tragedy when original arranger Golbin was killed in a car accident in Hawthorne in 2016. “It was totally tragically unforeseen. He was the only arranger at that point and he did a lot of cueing on stage,” Avineri says. “I had a large existential dilemma of do we keep doing this, how is this train going to keep moving forward?”
Fortunately other members of WST had experience arranging and today the band is branching out into songs by other bands and using a variety of vocalists including Junor Francis and Chris Murray. Western Standard Time continues to iterate, and is developing on original songs. The band has three instrumentals — including a minor blues rocksteady tune and a Middle Eastern-influenced number – which they’ll debut at their Nov. 11 show in San Diego.
“We’re exploring some different avenues and also trying to create our own voice,” Avineri says.
Western Standard Time will perform in the Copely Auditorium at The San Diego Museum of Art on Saturday, Nov. 11. For full info and tickets, click here.