Guitarist Cris Gill recalls and pays tribute to Rico, the great Specials and Jazz Jamaica trombonist who Cris played together with in Rico & His Band
“I met Rico about thirty years ago in London in the late 1980s when Rico made a surprise guest appearance with the band I was playing guitar in at the time — a ska band called The Trojans (formed by Gaz Mayall, son of blues musician John Mayall). The Trojans were performing in the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, west London, and we had a large band room to prepare for the gig. When I arrived for the gig I was shocked to find Rico there warming up and doubly shocked to hear Charlie Parker lines.
“Apart from the joy of playing with Rico I was delighted to have the chance to talk with him about music and his interest in jazz, the first of many illuminating conversations during our friendship over the years. I discovered that Rico and I had a shared interest and admiration for many of the same great jazz artists from Count Basie with Lester Young and Freddie Green to Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and many great artists from the early to mid twentieth century.
“I had been born into a jazz and blues filled household in 1960; my father was a band leader (Mick Gill’s Imperial Jazz Band) and part of the late 1940s post-war Trad Jazz revival in England. From as early as I can remember there was usually music playing in the house, either from my parents’ collection of jazz and blues records or from jam sessions in the living room. I had discovered Rico’s music when his LP Man From Wareika (1977) was first released and arrived in the record shop I was working in, my stepfather’s jazz specialist music store Peter Russell’s Hot Record Store in Plymouth.
“When Rico decided to form his own new band, around 1990 (his first since the 1970s), and he wanted me to be a part of it playing guitar — I was honoured. This band performed and recorded over five years or so under the name Rico & His Band. Later during this period Rico was also a member of Jazz Jamaica but Rico often said to me that his band was more like a family to him and that some of the happiest times for him were when playing with his own band, with the rare musical freedom it provided. The set included many jazz songs/tunes, as well as Rico’s own originals. Rico loved to ‘keep it real’ during gigs and would often quickly brief the bass player before starting into a tune which most of the band had never played or heard before; these spontaneous arrangements are some of my most memorable and enjoyable musical highlights.
“Rico’s recognisable sound attracted the attention of many successful artists and his magical sound can be heard on many commercial recordings over several decades. One rare crossing of musical paths was when the great British jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill sought out Rico and sat in on several gigs. Once whilst sound checking, Rico and Lol were playing a medley of Caribbean tunes together, some of which I recognised. After the sound check I asked Lol how he knew so many of the tunes he was playing with Rico, Lol replied ‘I’ve never heard them before…’ The gigs with Lol were always remarkable.
“During that time Rico appeared many times with The Trojans, including a tour of Japan, and on several recordings. Rico’s deep understanding of rhythm and his finesse with melodic timing added a unique majesty to the sound of the band with his inspirational solos always being the high point.
“By way of my personal tribute to Rico I feel very fortunate indeed to have been a part of Rico’s music for a few years and to have enjoyed a friendship from which I learned so much about music, wisdom and life.”
Rico Rodriguez above left with Lol Coxhill (photo: Cordelia Weedon)