You’ve got to hand it to Andy Narell. Instead of playing the steel pans as an adjunct to a full range of percussive instruments or confining them solely to calypso or the music of Trinidad--he has played nothing but
the pans throughout his career as he merged the uniqueness of its sound with the jazz idiom. Much in the same way that Toots Thielemans pioneered the combination of the voice of the harmonica with jazz, Narell has continued to find ways to improve opportunities for steel pans and to improve their sonic fidelity in recorded format. Venerated by South Africans and one of the few steel pan players accepted by Trinidadians for the island’s festivals, Narell found in 2001 that the French are devoted to the instrument as well. The result, The Passage,
documents the results of Narell’s work with the French 30-piece steel pan orchestra, the Calypsociatian...and it represents an advance in recording technology for steel pans.
Narell knows full well the overwhelming experience of walking through a steel band of more than a hundred musicians during competitions like Trinidad’s Panorama. However, until now, listeners at home couldn’t capture the depth and breath of the sound, which are what makes it thrilling to visitors there. In yet another advance for the instrument, Narell decided to record the Calypsociatian with special placements of microphones to capture each of the players and then to overdub sections of the band over the live recording to create a highly identifiable stereo mix. And then
Narell released the recording in surround sound SACD format so that the listener sounds as if he or she is walking through the middle of the steel band as well.
The result brings to fruition Narell’s commitment to the instrument, for, other than the guest musicians, The Passage
involves solely steel pans playing Narell’s compositions backed up by percussionist. So, for devotees of the steel pan, the CD represents the ultimate in appreciation of its sound and experiencing its magic in live performance.
The first track, "The Passage," adjusts the listener to the sound of the steel band, which isn’t quite what one would expect from a jazz recording since the instrument often is used to add color to arrangements for horns--or in the case of Monty Alexander--for piano. Punctuating the rhythm with syncopated strikes while the remainder of the band creates a float behind the melody as if a tremolo on piano, Narell establishes a level of excitement that primes listeners for what’s to follow. But then Narell slows things down for "Song For Mia," actually a ballad-like tune in beguine form that attains an even higher level of exquisiteness when saxophonist Michael Brecker fills out the remainder with a sensitively shaped solo making clear the possibilities of steel pans when combined with jazz musicians. Narell does the same thing when Paquito D’Rivera joins in on "Mabouya," a canny waltz that Narell based on the changes to "Round Midnight." And Hugh Masekela deepens the groove of "Dee Mwa Wee," written to an African rhythm based on a 12/8 signature and embellished by hand drumming.
As Andy Narell seeks constant challenges to overcome in his devotion to the steel pans, The Passage
represents a significant achievement in the ability to record the instrument with a high degree of authenticity, the interchange of ideas between jazz and Caribbean rhythms rooted in folkloric origins, and the self-sufficiency of the instrument in creating its own unique orchestral fullness.