Instrumental Ska with Jazz Jamaica: Rico Rodriguez in the ’90s

 

Here’s a rare one (for me)…an in-depth study of someone’s discography that contains almost no vinyl.  The third wave ska scene featured something that I have not seen to my satisfaction since: truly fantastic instrumental ska albums.  While paying homage to the 1st wave with lots of covers, the 2Tone era broke fully from instrumental ska.  The 3rd wave went in several directions – punk ska (aka “punk with horns”), more traditional sounding ska with vocals, and then, the really traditional instrumental ska.  It was a particularly unique time in ska history, as a good number of the original Jamaican masters were still alive and touring, their influence obvious in every instrumental release.  One of these was the late Rico Rodriguez.  Rico was wonderful, and a trombone master.  Which brings us to today’s task: tackling the very confusing discography of Jazz Jamaica, the wonderful Rico Rodriguez band of the era.  “Oh, that’s easy,” you say.  “It was just two CDs, right?”  (Okay, I know you aren’t saying that.  Work with me.)  It turns out there were several albums that were only released in Japan, several others released under different band names, and even two using the name that were really by a different band.  It took me forever to get straight.

Total aside: I tried like hell to see Jazz Jamaica and/or Rico play before he died.  The world conspired against me.  Jazz Jamaica actually flew to the States for one show in the late 90’s – a free performance in Central Park.  My car was stuck in the shop longer than expected and I couldn’t afford the bus ticket to New York at that point.  I’m still kicking myself – I even had a friend who really had no interest go as a surrogate.  Then…years later, I lived in Switzerland, and I was supposed to drive to see Rico (in Lucerne, if memory serves), but he cancelled at the last minute due to illness.  Of course, the car I was driving might not have made it anyway.  Tragic.

At any rate, let’s take a dive into Jazz Jamaica.  First, the ground rules: what counts as Jazz Jamaica?  Here’s how I am defining the band: 1. Must contain Rico.  2. Must contain a representative sampling (half) of the eight band members who released the albums under the Jazz Jamaica name.  This will become clearer in a moment.

1. Skaravan CD – 1993/1996

Readily available U.S. CD.  Easy, right?  Negative.  This one originally came out in Japan and the UK in 1993, then later in the U.S. in 1996.  Each had a completely different cover.  That’s not too bad.  But wait, there’s more…the Japanese version contained three additional tracks.  And they’re GOOD: “Dr. Kildare,” “Rasta,” and “Confucious” (a significantly different version from the one that later came out on the Double Barrel album).  There are some wonderful recordings on this album, including my all-time favorite version of “Peanut Vendor.”  All in all, a fantastic album.  It stands out above the other early ones.  If you listen to all three of the Japanese releases, it is fairly obvious why this is the one that got the subsequent U.S. release.

2. The Jamaican Beat: Blue Note Blue Beat Vol. 1 CD – 1994

This was a Japan-only CD.  Usually fairly easy to track down, as long as you are willing to pay for shipping from Japan.  This one…I don’t know.  Parts are good and others fall flat.  It opens with a rendition of “Three Blind Mice.”  I mean…it’s certainly the best rendition of it I have heard, but it’s still “Three Blind Mice,” and they opened the album with it.  It’s…an odd choice.  They do a version of “Watermelon Man” on here, which is one of my all-time favorite instrumentals.  I have always thought that this should be a high-energy song, though, and the Jazz Jamaica version is a bit more chill, with a wandering bass line.  It’s good, but then I listen to the Jump with Joey or Baba Brooks version, and feel that those are far superior.

One weird thing is that there were a couple of tracks on the disc with vocals, which was pretty abnormal for Jazz Jamaica.  Hmm…I feel as though this is coming off as too negative.  It is actually a very good album.  The second half of the disc, in particular, is really strong – “Sidewinder” and “Song for My Father” are really good.  There is also a pretty badass version of  “Take Five” on here (which Rico later did for the fabulous late-’90s Ska Island compilation as well).  This song, with its aggressive horn line, is the type of track that really showed off Rico’s trombone ability.

3. Rico & His Band – You Must Be Crazy CD/LP – 1994

The first curve ball (aside from the Japan-only releases, of course).  This is a live album, recorded in 1994, released in Germany.  It’s not officially Jazz Jamaica, but it meets the spirit of the exercise and the sound of the band.  Rico, along with Eddie “Tantan” Thornton, Michael “Bammie” Rose, and Tony Uter play on this one.  The rest of the band is different from the Jazz Jamaica releases.  It’s a very solid live recording.

4. The Jamaican Beat Vol. 2 CD – 1995

Hey, there’s a creative title.  Vol. 2 is a Japan-only release, much like vol. 1, but this one is much harder to find, and substantially more expensive, if you can find it.  9 of 12 tracks are instrumentals, 8 of which range from good to great.  There are some really solid tracks on here.  The ones with vocals do very little for me (including a really unfortunate “Misty” cover).  Those tracks notwithstanding, this disc goes toe-to-toe with anything else Jazz Jamaica released.  It is well worth tracking down.

5. Rico Rodriguez – Wonderful World LP/CD – 1995
Rico Rodriguez All Stars – Rico’s Message CD – 1997

Here’s another effort hiding under a different name.  This one has the same “half Jazz Jamaica” lineup that we found on “You Must Be Crazy” above.  It originally came out as a CD and LP in Japan.  The CD got re-released at some point, but the LP is a really tough find.  It was also released as a French CD as Rico’s Message in 1997.  The biggest standout on here for me is the version of “Work Song” that they do (which you may know from various places, but kicks off the Slackers’ first album).  They do a great version of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World” on this disc – possibly the only Rico song with vocals that I really like.  Good stuff.

6. Michael “Bammie” Rose – Reggae Be-Bop LP/CD – 1996

Now, things get tricky.  I happened upon this album totally by chance.  In 1997, I was desperate to find the first album by the Japanese instrumental ska band, The Sideburns (a different post…hmm…maybe I’ll do that one soon).  That CD was on a Japanese label called Olive Disk & Record.  It was totally impossible to find at that time.  As a last ditch effort, I wrote to the label to see if they would sell me a copy of the Sideburns disc (possibly invoking the name of the radio station where I ran a hosted a ska show at the time…you can prove nothing…).  Well, they gave me one instead, and sent the Michael  “Bammie” Rose CD along with it.  I completely ignored it at first – singularly ska-focused as I was, I honestly never got much into reggae, so I tended to ignore most things with “reggae” in the title.

Eventually, I figured I should give it a listen.  It grabbed me instantly.  Kind of blew me away, to be honest.  After a few tracks, I started reading through the insert, and saw that Rico had played on it.  Then, I broke out my Jazz Jamaica CDs to compare, and realized that this was actually the entire band.  A Jazz Jamaica album in disguise!  And only available in Japan!  Ridiculous.  Now, it definitely does feature Mr. Rose and his flute a bit more than a normal Jazz Jamaica title.  Make no mistake, though: this is a Jazz Jamaica album.  And it’s really good.  There are several standouts here, but “The New Orleans Connection” makes me happier than most other songs in the world.  Buy this.  I would totally try to give this record a U.S. release if I thought there were any chance that I would not lose money on the endeavor.  Of course, the label is long defunct and in Japan, so…all easier said than done.  And not really easily said.

7. Double Barrel CD – 1998

Finally…an easy one.  Double Barrel was the last Jazz Jamaica album.  It just crushes from the opening intro line, as they launch into the title track, a Dave & Ansel Collins classic: “We are Jazz Jamaica.  We’ve come here to boom-shock-a-rocker- your soul!”  The second half of the album gets a little jazzier than the first half, but it’s still excellent.  Start to finish, Double Barrel is a fantastic instrumental album.  It closes with a badass instrumental cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” that you must hear.  The CD was/is readily available in the U.S.

Jazz Jamaica All Stars – Massive / Motor City Roots CDs –
NOT JAZZ JAMAICA

These two CDs need to be addressed, as they use the Jazz Jamaica name, and…quite frankly, are a different band.  The bass and guitar players from Jazz Jamaica were in this band.  No one else.  No Rico.  These two discs sound nothing like any of the ones above.  They were really just trying to capitalize on the Jazz Jamaica name.  It fooled me enough to buy the first one.  It’s fine…but it’s not Jazz Jamaica.

So, there you go.  A convoluted, meandering jaunt through the ’90s path of Jazz Jamaica, one of the best instrumental ska bands of the time. Hopefully, there is something in here you have not heard.  If you like any of the above, the rest are worth tracking down.