Caribbean Jazz: A Summer Cruise for Your Mind

Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler by Robin Lloyd and Nick Morrison for NPR.
Wouldn’t it be nice to just drop whatever you’re doing right now and go on a nice, leisurely Caribbean vacation? Well, you can — sort of. Let your mind sail through the Caribbean by listening to some music from a few of the many fine jazz artists who were born in the Caribbean islands. Through their music, we’ll visit Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Cuba. So rub a little sunscreen on your brain, sit back and sail away.

Michel Camilo

  • Album: One More Once
  • Song: Caribe

Our first stop is the Dominican Republic, birthplace of jazz pianist and composer Michel Camilo. Camilo is known as one of the most energetic pianists in jazz, and though he generally plays in a trio configuration, he upped the energy-ante on 1994’s One More Once by arranging some of his music for a big band (which includes Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and Puerto Rican conguero Giovanni Hidalgo). The band is as tight as two coats of paint — and, as you’ll hear, they need to be in order to stay on top of Camilo’s amazing arrangement of “Caribe.”

Monty Alexander

  • Album: Stir It Up: The Music of Bob Marley
  • Song: No Woman, No Cry

As a young pianist in Kingston, Jamaica, Monty Alexander cut his musical teeth on ska and reggae music. He moved to the U.S. to pursue jazz, but never forgot where he came from. Off and on over the years, Alexander has worked at blending reggae and jazz, with a focus on the music of Bob Marley. If you have a hard time believing that jazz and reggae can coexist comfortably, just listen to this lovely version of Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.”

David Sanchez

  • Album: Travesía
  • Song: Máquina (Viajando en el Tren)

In the previous two songs, we were sailing the Caribbean with groups led by pianists. Now, it’s time to travel across Puerto Rico on a train driven by two of that country’s finest saxophonists, David Sanchez (tenor) and Miguel Zenon (alto). Since Sanchez is the leader on this session, he gets most of the solo focus, but his interplay with Zenon is lovely. Puerto Rican pianist Edsel Gomez also gets his licks in on this jazz-powered locomotive.

Hear “La Máquina (Viajando En El Tren)” on MySpace.

Chucho Valdes

  • Album: Chucho’s Steps
  • Song: Begin To Be Good

One of the giants of Caribbean jazz is Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes. In 1970, Valdes’ combo became the first Cuban jazz group to perform outside that country. Shortly thereafter, he became a founding member of the group Irakere. Earlier this year, Valdes won his fifth Grammy, this time with his group The Afro-Cuban Messengers. “Begin to be Good” is from that Grammy-winning album. Featured soloists are Valdes and trumpeter Reinaldo Melian Alvarez. If you’re looking for a song that’s an equivalent to a Caribbean evening breeze, this is it.

Joseph Spence

  • Album: Good Morning Mr. Walker
  • Song: Good Morning Mr. Walker

Because the Caribbean is as famous for its baseball players as it is for its musicians, we thought we’d throw a change-up for our final selection. Our last stop on the tour is the Bahamas and a performance by Joseph Spence, a Bahamian guitarist and singer — if you stretch the definition of “singer.” Spence was not a jazz musician. He was a marvelous blues/folk guitarist and an extremely eccentric vocalist who influenced a number of American and European musicians and groups, from Taj Mahal and Olu Dara to The Grateful Dead and The Incredible String Band. While his fingerstyle guitar playing was often meticulous, Spence seemed to care little about the lyrics of many of the songs he performed. As he played, he’d sing a phrase of the song here and there. As for the rest of the song… well, he just made it up as he went along. “Yellow Bird” (a song which was somehow co-opted by Hawaii, but is actually Caribbean, having originated in Haiti) is a fine example of a musician who was truly one-of-a-kind. Joseph Spence will make you smile. What better way to end a Caribbean mini-vacation?

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