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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Le Jazz Primitif

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 21, 2011

Sonny Rollins

Photo: John Abbott (WBGO's "The Checkout")

Sonny Rollins, who played the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival earlier this month, has given a number of interviews recently in which he discusses his career-long affinity for calypso.  (I’m thinking particularly of his conversations with Josh Jackson of WBGO’s The Checkout, with Larry Appelbaum for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project, and with John Swenson in OffBeat Magazine.)  “People relate to my Caribbean music all over the world,” he told Swenson, “but I notice something especially in New Orleans, the people there seem to have a deeper understanding of it.”

The reason?  Well, he recognizes that the Crescent City is effectively the northern capital of the Caribbean, but he suspects a deeper cause.  Like him, Rollins speculates, New Orleanians are “primitives” — a term academics would decry as problematic, though of course Rollins means it in the most flattering way: unschooled, un-self-conscious, authentic — someone who can tap into pre-modern roots.

Rupert Clemendore, Jazz

(Even Trinidadian bandleaders John “Buddy” Williams and Rupert Clemendore once released an album called Le Jazz Primitif — with tunes that were characteristically très sophistiqués — though I expect the exotic appellation was Emory Cook’s idea, not theirs.  Clemendore did a second album called simply Le Jazz Trinidad; the other notable entry in the short-lived “calypso jazz” category was Freddy Grant’s out-of-print Calypso on Bethlehem.  Others, like Dave Pike’s Carnavals and Don Elliott’s Jamaica Jazz, were mainly “exotic”-flavored lounge fare.)

At any rate, if the Jazz Fest primitives came to hear Rollins play calypso, they weren’t disappointed: I can’t find a full set list, but the accounts I’ve read say that Rollins opened with a 28-minute calypso, then followed with a ballad, another (12-minute) calypso, an unidentified postbop tune, and a 20-minute workout of “St. Thomas.”  (The encore had a “Bags’ Groove” head; no word on whether the Milt Jackson jazz standard was subsequently calypsofied.)   “Rollins seemed most comfortable with the calypsos,” reported Dr. Jazz on the Jazz Programmers List:

The lilting rhythms and short, melodic phrases made it easy for him to alternate a bright, singing sound on his sax with knotty harmonic variations and low, throaty honking.  Instead of tiring, as you might expect, Rollins kept getting stronger…His fingers loosened up, and the notes started coming faster and freer…the set was far from the nostalgic, last go-round for a living legend many expected. Rollins still had a lot to say, and he kept delaying the end of each number to make sure he had room to say it.

And the closer he gets to the ancestors, apparently, the more he says it with calypso.

The octogenarian Rollins isn’t the only modern improviser to have brought jazz and calypso together.  I’ve written before about Andy Narell and Lord Relator’s brilliant reexamination of Kitch’s marriage of kaiso and small-group jazz on University of Calypso.  This summer, in collaboration with veteran calypsonian Lord Superior, Trinidadian jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles (who’s already scattered a handful of fine calypsos on his first two albums; for a taste, see “Santimanité“) follows suit with Kaiso (try the 1080p HD version in full-screen!):

Meanwhile, singer Fay Victor, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Trini parents, gave classic calypso the “out” treatment, with the help of avant-garde ensemble Other Dimensions in Music, on Kaiso Stories (hear selections from the album on Jason Crane’s interview program The Jazz Session); saxophonist James Carter brought his talents to Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra’s “Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra” on Caribbean Rhapsody (which features folk and clavé, but not calypso, rhythms); and Virgin Islander trombonist Reginald Cyntje successfully crowdfunded the production of his first album, Freedom’s Children.  (He’s not saying yet whether it will include a cover of, say, “St. Thomas.”)

I propose that jazz audiences henceforth adopt a new expression of approbation for the killin’ solo: “Kaiso!”

Fay Victor, Kaiso StoriesJames Carter, Caribbean RhapsodyReginald Cyntje, Freedom's Children

4 Responses to “Le Jazz Primitif”

  1. Thanks for the link to my interview with Fay. James Carter will be on The Jazz Session on June 9 talking about Caribbean Rhapsody.

    All the best,


  2. […]  (I myself made a passing and somewhat dismissive reference to the disc a year ago; see “Le Jazz Primitif.”)  The show, which, as Myers describes it, depicts a small Caribbean island “trying […]

  3. […] while Charles’s grandfather played cuatro in Tiger’s band.  (Previous posts: Etienne Charles, Van Dyke […]

  4. […] “go-to” venue. (His dances drew hundreds, often thousands, of patrons. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who as a young child lived on 137th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, remembers going with […]

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