Trailblazing steelpan jazz virtuoso Rudy Smith has been fusing the sound of the pan with bebop and progressive jazz for nearly fifty years, premiering the sound of native invention and “creole imagination” in the wider world. Europe has been his stomping ground for all those years, and with his eleventh full-length album Smith serves as a bona fide symbol of music excellence. Glass World finds Smith back fronting his Danish jazz band, re-inventing the idea of the steelpan as a solo instrument for jazz without the feeling of it being too avant garde. “Plangent” was the word used by a reviewer to describe the sound of the double second steelpans used by Smith, but a more apt descriptive would be “euphonious.” That tone juxtaposes beautifully within the songs, mainly written by his long-time collaborator and pianist Ole Matthiessen, to serve up a new standard in a diminishing
Brooklyn-born pannist Kareem Thompson revels in his Trinidadian heritage on his debut album as a leader away from his band K.I.T. Caribbean Connection, fully exploring more complex jazz harmonies. The continued fusion of Caribbean rhythms and melodic phrases makes the listener recognise Thompson’s roots, and he has not strayed too far from those early cultural influences. The title track with its percussive voicing gives credence to the idea that steelpan jazz is wide open to further evolution, as those sonic cues that define the sub-genre are subtly pushed aside for an exploration of the broader range of harmonies and rhythms. “The Sun Will Shine Today” is a standout track that has the players on this album skilfully soloing. With five out of seven tracks composed by Thompson, this album is a showcase for a rising talent in pan jazz, hopeful to maintain the Caribbean variation of jazz music in the Americas.
Cé Biguine! Charlie Halloran
This album represents, in the twenty-first century, a kind of harking back to the music and technology of a bygone era. New Orleans trombonist Charlie Halloran and his band have recorded an album of orchestrated biguine — the music of the French Antilles created in the early twentieth century as a creole stew of Afro-Caribbean and European musical tropes — straight to 78 rpm acetate disc master, to create a modern artefact of music history. Pops and clicks like an old vinyl record give this recording a nostalgic ambience, while the music has a quality that makes you want to grab a partner and dance the night away under tropical stars. It eschews the kitsch of 1950s American tourist views of the Antilles as a playground, for a re-awakening of the musical distinctiveness and inventiveness of the creole musician. Novelty aside, this album is a keepsake for listeners wanting to understand the Caribbean’s role in the evolution of jazz. Jazz, then and now, is rewarded.
Electro Sax Elan Trotman
(Island Muzik Productions)
Bajan saxman Elan Trotman keeps churning out new albums at a rapid pace, as if to suggest the uptake of his new music is effective and guaranteed to be popular. With this, his seventh full-length album since 2001, he keeps evolving his style around his smooth jazz base to eke out new niches. Utilising the electronic dance music drum elements so popular in recent times, Electro Sax redefines what is possible with Caribbean music. Aware that this album will “definitely ruffle feathers” for its modern production aesthetic — he assembled a creative team of up-and-coming producers, all Berklee College of Music alumni: Spardakis, P-Nut, Dr O, and Da Troof — Trotman is persevering in his push to promote the tropicality elements along with just great music for dancing. Debut single “Island Gyal” percolates with a sexy reggae vibe, keeping hope alive that this experiment in EDM fusion remains grounded in his Bajan roots.
New York–based Trinidadian guitarist Marvin Dolly surprises on this debut album, Shades of Life, with a quiet contemplation of trio-playing featuring just guitar, bass, and trumpet. In an intimate setting devoid of the thump of the drum, the soloists each have room to speak clearly and emotively in this conversation among acoustic instruments. Dolly, along with J.S. Williams on trumpet and John Gray on double bass, mainly, cruises through this set of subdued jazz tunes that harken back to the cool jazz ambience of 1950s West Coast America, contrasting with the bebop bombast of New York of the same era. The music, thankfully, does not wallow in the excess of a similar-sounding ambient lounge or minimalist new-age aesthetic. Dolly’s guitar finds its full voice on the tracks “Calypsonian Dream” and “Short Letters to Mother”, solo and duet guitar pieces, respectively, that make a solid opening gambit for a Caribbean instrumentalist’s voice in the diaspora.
Sabiduría/Wisdom Eddie Palmieri
The Caribbean is a trans-nation of expanded and connected diasporas. Puerto Rican heritage extends beyond its island space to include its famous diaspora citizens. Bronx-born Eddie Palmieri is a legendary Latin jazz pianist, who at the age of eighty may have delivered one of the most sonically and musically endearing albums in his career. Not that he “finally got the formula right,” but with those years of experience as a bandleader, composer, and arranger, and the “wisdom” — sabiduría in Spanish — that comes with that experience, Palmieri can pull together some of the finest talent, young and old, in jazz and salsa/Latin music to successfully and pleasingly blend the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of his Puerto Rican island “home” with the harmonically complex sounds of mainland jazz and bebop. The album also extends the fusion to include bossa nova on “Samba Do Suenho” and Cuban son on “Coast to Coast”.
There’s a photograph floating around the Internet from about a year ago, of a dapper Etienne Charles, Trinidadian jazz trumpeter, warming up with soca superstar Machel Montano before performing a short impromptu set at the White House. President Obama could not attend the event — his loss — where the recognition of Caribbean people and their contributions to the United States reached an apotheosis. Charles and Montano embody the high pinnacle of Trinidad and Tobago’s music success in the US — and both belong to a new wave of Caribbean musicians who have honed their craft within an environment of learning and high standards.
The trumpet’s evolution and positioning as the symbol of jazz has a heritage marked by iconic figures throughout its history. Icons like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Wynton Marsalis represent a linear history. They also represent a shift from the working-class unschooled genius to the middle-class educated musician, who have paid their dues by apprenticeship. Charles, in this pantheon in the Caribbean context, represents the modern incarnation of the jazz musician taking his craft and skill to the world.
In the Caribbean, jazz does not have as high a profile as reggae, dancehall, calypso, or soca. Despite the region’s reputation for the once ubiquitous “jazz festival” — writer B.C. Pires noted back in 1993 that there were “more than 30 jazz festivals every year in the Caribbean and most Caribbean people have never been to one.” — these islands have not offered up many global stars in the modern jazz industry. Still, the most prolific modern recording artist in the Caribbean is Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander, with over fifty albums released around the world. It’s also noteworthy that Caribbean music and musicians figure prominently in the genesis of jazz music in America. Charles carries on the tradition of regional jazz musicians who have fused their native cultural influences, rhythms, and melodies with aspects of jazz harmony and improvisation to create something new.
Creole chanteuse Vaughnette Bigford delivers a sublime mix of tunes from her native Trinidadian songbook on her debut album Born to Shine. With a restrained but fine voice that captures the timbre and phrasing of excellent jazz singing, Bigford transforms familiar calypsos and island pop songs from the 1970s and 80s into well-wrought modern jazz and R&B settings that highlight fine examples of local songcraft. “All these years of toil, burning the midnight oil / Creating something from nothing,” wrote soca pioneer Lord Shorty in 1978. Bigford literally and figuratively has done just that with these rehashed songs. The proverb “don’t judge a book by its cover,” may be applied here — defaults in packaging design aside — as we bask in the splendour of what’s inside the music. High production value, lucid enunciation of lyrics needing to be heard, and elevation of island song are the hallmarks of an audacious debut destined to shine brightly.
Virgin Island steelpan jazz virtuoso Victor Provost sets an optimistic tone with his second album, Bright Eyes, capturing the influence of the Caribbean more so than on his debut album six years ago. Bebop swagger gives way to a progressive jazz world fusion while still maintaining a deft touch that allows the tenor pan to ring true. On the eleven tunes on this album, Provost runs through a gamut of styles and select composers, to give the steelpan a context outside its calypso base. The obligatory homage to calypso legend Lord Kitchener is included — “Pan in Harmony” — but this album reflects Provost’s recent apprenticeship with Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and his wider exploration of improvised tropical music. Mazurka, baião, calypso, and funky Afro-Cuban jazz all have a presence here. Guest soloists — including the aforementioned D’Rivera, alongside Etienne Charles and Ron Blake, to name a few — flavour this Caribbean jazz gumbo which swings with enough intensity to keep your attention.
Trinidad Carnival music—its history and retention and its role in shaping our society—is the focus of musician and educator Etienne Charles' latest exploration of music in the Americas. In the context of creating increasingly interesting jazz responses to the myriad sounds and rhythms that inform Carnival music, Charles debuted parts of the still in-progress extended suite, Carnival: The Sound of a People at the Queen's Hall last Sunday.