Le Jazz Primitif
Rupert Clemendore/John Buddy Williams Le Jazz Primitif LP (Cook, 1961)
What a difference a handful of cool songs an a great record cover makes!
Le Jazz Primitif was recorded in Trinidad, 1960, by Cook Laboratories in order to document the island's rich music scene, specifically the "calypso jazz" scene. Unfortunately, the jazz on half of this album - the side by Rupert Clemendore’s combo - is little more than what passes for “evening jazz” today. The liner notes make the claim that Clemendore has a “frankly Shearing sophistication set to a Caribbean beat.” And I can hear the Shearing (George, I assume), but the Caribbean beat sounds like your regular lounge-inspired brush-tap-brush-tap. Which is fine and dandy if you like your jazz lite, but primitif this is not.
John Buddy Williams’s band lords over Side B and that is good. Williams’s selections mesh straight up calypso with Latin rhythms and a somewhat-meandering jazz swing. Williams starts out with a Venezuelan waltz, which, according to the notes, is a Trinidadian jazz interpretation of the Joropo folk dance music of Venezuela. The song, Alma Llanera, has a drum heavy beat with an accent that alternates on the 2nd and 3rd beat. “Sax-clarinet” squeaks the melody and punches from time to time. The recording is raw and through the music you can hear a pretty rowdy crowd.
The second stand out cut is a Bakanal or a Jamaican calypso, a style a little more swinging than that of the other islands and where you can very much hear the roots of rocksteady. The band takes off with an energetic dance rhythm, horns spinning around each other. The horns drop back while band chants the vocal line for a verse, the crowd adding to the music with yelps and hollers.
For the rest of the record, Williams and friends stay on the calypso beat, with audience in full party mode. Most calypso records are cut in the studio, which is so far from where the music originated and was enjoyed. This live-in-the-crowd recording is so much more satisfying than the glossy tourist records that usually make it over to the States. Part of the reason for the realness of this record is due to Cook Laboratories, who were dedicated to recording and releasing records that were recorded as close to the source of the music experience as possible. It is no surprise that Folkways Smithsonian now administers the Cook archives.
Finding calypso vinyl is tough. Many of the records that are floating around are those which American tourist bought at the hotel nightclub during their honeymoon. These “honeymoon” records are hit and miss. I've found some fantastic goombay records (and a signed Byron Lee record on the Jamaican Air Lines label!) and a few killer low-fi calypso ones but there are many more I've tossed.
During the 1960s, as part of the exotica craze, some calypso albums were released stateside but a lot of those are hampered by too much polish - Harry Belafonte’s catalog for example. Of major label releases, The Eloise Trio records on Decca and the Fabulous McCkeverys on Verve are good. Sparrow (aka Mighty Sparrow) records are relatively easy to find (though spotty). I have had my best luck with crappy rip-off labels like Crown and Design. Given these labels cheapness and willingness to release anything that could sell from whatever tapes the could scrounge up, they pressed some pretty tasty and very raw calypso gems.
Recently, there has been a small wave of calypso comps released on CD. Like most comps, I advise caution. Your introduction is being mediated by someone else's ears. That said, an intro is helpful and for that I would suggest a look at the Smithsonian/Cook catalog, as well as checking out some web resources.