It’s 5:47pm on Wednesday and the Sonos Studio is beginning to fill up. The din of an Ornette Coleman record and everyone enjoying themselves creeps under the door and seeps through the walls of the Listening Room. There, lounging with legs crossed on a cowhide couch, Jimmy Cliff is telling a story about his childhood. He explains with a grin that, growing up in Jamaica, he went with his parents to church. “The kind of church it was was about singing and music and that. So I liked that…I enjoyed it because of the release of the emotion.”

Now, at 64 years old, it’s tough to single out the most accomplished aspect of Jimmy’s musical career. He has written what Bob Dylan called one of the greatest protest songs of all times. In ’72 he starred in The Harder They Come, which – along with his work on the soundtrack – would introduce the world to reggae music.

Feel free to imagine what it would be like to do either of those things. Or anything of comparable impact. I’ve tried; it’s hard.

Yet Cliff sits (still smiling) and begins to talk about what may be his most laudable and incidentally lesser-known feat, “I change with the technological age.” As an artist who has lived through the transition from radio to television to the advent of the internet, he remains undaunted; excited even. “I keep changing – that’s why this wireless thing is so cool and easy. It’s pretty amazing. For me it’s a very exciting time to be experiencing.”

“I like to be current with everything that’s going on. I want to listen to everything.”

An icon with an insatiable creative appetite. Pretty much a perfect fit for the innaugural Sonos Studio listening party.

Jimmy Cliff SONOS Listening Party

Although Cliff may be getting on in years, his enthusiasm is unmatched. He’s touring internationally for the next month before he returns to the US for 20+ dates this summer. This is far from his final dalliance.

We talk about what it’s been like recording Cliff’s last two records with Tim Armstrong (Rancid, Operation Ivy, et al.). “It was kind of an awakening, working with Tim. Awakening in the sense of – I’m the type of artist that after I create something I want to move on and create something else. But he kind of said ‘look at what you’ve done over here’…it was something.”

After our chat, Cliff begins the listening party with music journalist Eric Ducker. There’s a dramatic effect –the room full of people goes silent as the audience encircles the stage. Ducker conducts a listening and discussion session that involves more of Cliff as his storytelling self, entertaining the full house with songwriting origins and anecdotes as they play segments of songs from his recent album REBIRTH. It’s an intimate setting, with the audience so attentive Ducker even fields a few questions at the end.

But while the listening and discussion session was rather quiet, during the performance the Sonos Studio shines. Thanks to the custom canted walls and the acoustic foam ceiling, Cliff’s voice sounds so warm and emotive it’s as if it surrounds you. Cliff has headlined international festivals and played to audiences en masse throughout his entire career, so to hear him in such a setting with attention to acoustic detail was a real treat. And in true reggae form the set spanned from socio-political to feel-good, with a moving rendition of his unreleased song Cry No More, and finishing with the classic Joe Higgs sing-along, World Upside Down.

With many more Sonos Studio events on the books this summer, Cliff set the bar high.

Much more to look forward to at 145 N La Brea.

Bryan Crawford has long been indoctrinated with good music. Starting with everything from Dylan to disco in the home, he soon became a jazz nerd. Now he spends his time curating an online music discovery resource featuring monthly installments of emerging artists in major US metros. 

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