Thursday, 31 July 2014

Theron Shaw: Gumbo Caribe - a CD review¹


Theron Shaw is well known in local music circles as the go-to man for guitar support ranging from jazz to calypso. His two previous releases signalled a willingness to engage with native cultural mores and tackle Caribbean Jazz not only as a way to “tropicalise” harmonically complex original music, but as a way to validate and valorise calypsoes, ethnic music and folk songs in a surprisingly new context. With his third release on CD, Gumbo Caribe, Shaw almost exclusively utilises the talents of a cadre of Boston-based BerkLee College of Music faculty and alumni to expand the thematic influences beyond the border.

Those musicians include Trinidad-born professor of music, Ron Reid, who acts as producer and earns an album artist credit, along with dynamic drummer Harvey Wirht, originally from Suriname. Reid has honed his skill of pulling superlative performances out of musicians—last year, that was on display at his One Night Only concert at All Saints Church Hall with local jazz talent—and on this album, the challenging variety of moods is adequately handled. Wirht leads by example to masterfully interpret the varied rhythms that are explored on this album. The challenge, if there is one at all, of playing live with musicians “outside the box” is recognised by the listener as the new aesthetics of jazz: just play...well!

Shaw says:
Gumbo Caribe represents a mix of styles and influences that I’ve been nurturing developing for a number of years. You will hear influences from the French Caribbean via the mennde and mazurka [mazouk], a Brazilian textured partido alto, and of course my own twists of calypso and folk rhythms.
The nine tunes on this album include five original compositions that explore those “styles and influences” Shaw speaks of in a way that suggests that the growth and exploration from his many years on the circuit here in Trinidad and regionally were productive. In the context of Trinidad and Tobago, that is a plus. In the last year, we are fortunate to have seen the launch of a handful of jazz CDs here, and Gumbo Caribe positively impacts that statistic.

“Ka Dans,” “Charlotteville Jig” and “Jubie’s Dance,” as their titles imply, force the listener to dance. Not simply to chip and wine, but to dance the rhythms of the isles. “Ka Dans” uses the Martiniquan mennde rhythm, and opens the CD with declarative impact suggesting that the music here is not the usual Caribbean Jazz “smooth jazz run through.” Witht handles the creole mazurka drumming on “Jubie’s Dance”—a tune dedicated to Shaw's grandmother Jubelina ‘Jubie’ Shaw—with great élan. Again, those French-Caribbean rhythms which are not present in much Trinidad music, provide a counterpoint to the familiar, and a basis for wider engagement for jazz audiences here.

Shaw is the master of the jazz cover of traditional local folk music. On previous CDs, he showed his hand at reminding listeners of the beauty of the creole canon, and on this album, he does the same with a reinterpretation of “Mangoes” (Mango Rose, Mango Vert) on solo guitar. Without competing sounds, this tune also showcases an improved technique. Olive Walke would be proud! Sparrow’s “No Money, No Love” is a tip of the hat to straight jazz complete with cool jazz horn arrangements.

A stand out track is Andre Tanker’s “Smokey Joe” featuring calypso stalwart Valentino vocalising the lyrics that drip with pathos, the song about an unlucky dreamer who lives for Carnival even when he is on his last dollar. Simple accompaniment with the nylon string Godin Multiac allows those lyrics to ring clearly and plaintively.

The jubilation of Caribbean music and the ease of performance, though muted to stolid perfection here, are hallmarks of a kind of beauty that Theron Shaw continues in his career with this CD. We should all be beholders.


  1. A version of this review appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspaper entitled "Shaw shares dancing gumbo rhythms."

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