The steelpan and its sound have become almost the cliché of Caribbean fantasy and escape, but in the hands of musicians with a determination to move away from that old trope, the music can challenge listeners to re-imagine the unique timbre of this creole invention and its canon. North Carolina native Jonathan Scales revels in odd metres and radical time signature changes to produce music for the instrument that can be complex, intriguing and ultimately funky enough for listeners to bop their heads. On this new album, the bass guitar serves as a fulcrum for a rhythmic chase as the steelpan matches it on some tracks like, “This Is The Last Hurrah”, or plays counterpoint standing in awe of the superb musicianship of the likes of Oteil Burbridge, Victor Wooten and MonoNeon on “Fake Buddha's Inner Child” and “The Trap”. Scales's musical hero, banjoist Béla Fleck guests, showcasing the adaptability of the steelpan in musical settings born outside the archipelago.
Jazz in the Islands magazine is proud to announce the launch of its podcast series Island Jazz Chat, featuring conversations with Caribbean jazz and pan jazz musicians based in the islands and the diaspora. In our premiere episode, editor Nigel A. Campbell chats with steelpan jazz pioneer, Rudy "Two Left" Smith. Listen below, and subscribe for future episodes of the podcast. Audio courtesy iRADIO.tt
Toronto is a multicultural paradise, more so for a number of artists and a second generation from the islands. Drummer Larnell Lewis, of Kittitian heritage is the premier drummer in the city, landing a job with Grammy winners Snarky Puppy and collecting a couple statuettes for himself. On this, his debut album, he calls on his Caribbean diaspora friends and his Snarky Puppy bandmates to add to this novel referencing of jazz from the perspective of a black North American jazz musician who is not African-American, freed from conjecture and obligations of jazz heritage. That freedom allows Lewis to explore rhythms and harmonies that suggest New Orleans (“Beignets”), gospel jazz (“Rejoice”), Latin jazz (“Coconuts”), fusion (“Change your Mind”), bebop — the solo on “No Access” is a drum masterclass — and tropical World Music (“Essence of Joy”). Memories and moments of Lewis's life are freed to inspire this joyous set of ten sparkling tunes. Dexterous and divine!
Bajan songstress Kellie Cadogan oozes charm on this album, with songs that flirt with the sonic qualities of soul-jazz and gospel. This long-in-gestation project includes half of the ten-song album composed by Cadogan, who, with these tunes, displays an ear for contemporary popular songcraft. You can make a range of comparisons: from the sound of a reborn Anita Baker to an intimate acoustic Ella Fitzgerald duet. Songwriting and performance aside, Believe acts as a calling card for a performer who can thrill with a voice that signifies more than just a tropical hotel lounge entertainer, but a singer in touch with a wider palette of sounds. The title tune hangs on a set of lyrics that reflect a positivity and faith that act as a kind of spiritual testimony. The juxtaposition of these original songs — uplifting odes all — and twentieth-century jazz standards makes this album an interesting listen, and a pleasant reminder that Caribbean singers stride many worlds effortlessly.
CooBago Jazz John Arnold
Tobagonian pianist John Arnold has a knack for writing music that finds its resonance in the heartbeat of Caribbean life. Songcraft more than execution is highlighted here on this nine-song album, with tunes running the gamut from modern piano jazz to contemporary jazz-influenced hip-hop. A longtime pinnacle of Tobago’s music scene and its jazz experience, Arnold continues with his approach of self-sufficiency in creating music that is an extension of the idea of the real Caribbean. Tobago sells itself as a laid-back paradise, the yin to Trinidad’s yang. That counterpoint to the energy of Trinidad’s music is reflected in the soft ostinato grooves of Arnold’s tunes — a repetition that isn’t boring, but that forces the ear to hear what is played on top of the groove. Funky piano and saxophone riffs help the listener discover the intended goal of the album: to define a cool Tobago sound in a sea of smooth jazz.
Got A Light? Jeremy Ledbetter Trio
Canadian keyboardist Jeremy Ledbetter is no stranger to island ears and aesthetics, having helmed the successful Caribbean Latin jazz ensemble CaneFire since 2005. With his new trio, featuring Larnell Lewis on drums and Rich Brown on bass — of Kittitian and Jamaican heritage, respectively — the West Indian cred is solid. Any fleeting ideas that Canada is a wasteland devoid of multiculturalism’s ethos of integration is abandoned on a first listen to this new album, featuring Ledbetter’s supple performance sharing space with that solid rhythm section. Lewis’s drums play inside and outside time signatures and showcase rhythm unhinged from the metronome-like quality of drum machines. It has to be so, as the nine tunes here echo the beat and harmonic sense of a rediscovered Caribbean transformed by virtuosity. The sound is hushed yet potent, the mood is languid yet dynamic. “Her New Wings”, sung by Eliana Cuevas, is perfection. This album is a revelation of possibilities.
On Saturday night, Vaughnette Bigford gave a performance at the sacred space, The Little Carib Theatre in Port of Spain that had an impact beyond mere words. The superlatives have been expounded on Facebook and elsewhere about her performance, the song set, the production, the guests. What has not been expanded upon so much is the seismic shift that has occurred in how we as an audience now expect local shows to be gauged.
To say that Vaughnette’s show has gone back to its roots, back to square one, would be to minimise its impact on a sold out audience. The tropes of her successful southern shows were all there: the range of songs from the jazz, local and World music songbooks (see song list below), the multiple languages flawlessly rendered, the hauntingly beautiful bass guitar and voice duo song (Putting Up a Resistance), the regulars shouting picong from the rafters! I have been to her Southern shows, Shades of Vaughnette, and have reviewed them for the newspapers here and here, and elsewhere. (Take your time, and read the reviews to get a sense of Vaughnette’s art.) I was there when she made the determined transition to the creole chanteuse who was born to shine and “owned” the local songbook of calypsos and 1970s island pop. Shit, I was there when she headlined Jazz Artists On The Greens - JAOTG in 2017 and graced the cover of my magazine, Jazz in the Islands.
Not too long ago, the word "jazz" would put people off for an event: "That is my parents music." Thankfully, those days are over, as more than a dozen events with multiple cast members have the word "jazz" in the titles or are featuring self-proclaimed jazz artists. And this does not even include the four Women In Jazz concerts at Fiesta Plaza, MovieTowne Trinidad. (Shout out to Rosezanna Winchester, LeAndra Head, Candice Caton and Genisa St Hilaire.) I glad. Now a new audience is waking up to the possibilities outside of soca fetes for live entertainment. A circuit for musicians, a wide variety of locations, a new normal for audiences. Read my previous post on Jazz as the Fad in Trinidad.
Young Trinidadian keyboardist Jeanine Ruiz releases her first EP as a musical autobiography of a life recently begun, and a testament to her emotional journey thus far. Going through the song titles — “Ambitious”, “Overthinker“, “Impulsive”, “Temperamental”, and “Dreamer” — one can gauge how far she has come and how far she can go. Listening to the music, one can hear the subtle influences of style that have touched her compositions. World fusion has a new advocate. Admittedly influenced by Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara mainly, Ruiz has a sure handedness in her playing and a keen sense of timing and cinematic breadth in her arrangements that catch a number of genres without being confusing. This is more than jazz-influenced trio playing, this debut signals a potential to take on the rigours of inspiring a waning instrumental music listening audience, here and there, to stick around and continue to track Ruiz's ongoing musical journey.
The flute, in jazz music, has a less prominent place than the saxophone or trumpet, but in this new album New York-based Trinidadian flautist David Bertrand makes a sincere attempt to expand the repertoire of the instrument. Seven of the eight tracks of sublime quartet playing are new compositions by Bertrand: the listener is given an opportunity also to revel in the studied application of jazz language to the inherent native vernacular of Trinidadian rhythm and tone. The titles of the tunes also suggest the idea that this is a subliminal musical autobiography: “Palmyra”, “Claude’s Nariva” and “Wood Slave” recalling Bertrand’s home island’s habitat and fauna; “Lexington and 63rd” and “245 South 1st” offering a survey of his New York present. The result is testament to the continued strides made by musical émigrés from the Caribbean to an American diaspora, inspiring art that takes no prisoners.
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 marketplace for unique jazz. Traditional jazz is best served with originality, and this album delivers.