Caribbean Playlist (September/October 2016) | Music Reviews

This month’s listening picks

MetamorphosisPollenSiroccoMore TrumpetPrecious MetalsCigarettes

MetamorphosisLeon Foster Thomas 
(Ropeadope Records)

Caribbean musicians are increasingly moving to the metropolitan commercial centres of the music business world to spread the rhythms and sounds created in these islands. Leon Foster Thomas, a Trinidadian steel pan virtuoso, is resident in Miami, and relying on that connection to a larger market to spread the sound of the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. Metaporphosis, Thomas’s third album, is his debut on important jazz label Ropeadope Records, and signals a critical and commercial blossoming beyond his early funky steel pan jazz beginnings into a standout quartet leader — a metamorphosis, if you will. These are ten tracks of progressive jazz fusion, highlighting the intelligent interplay between steel pan and other instruments, without losing the idea that Caribbean music can be improvised, and swing. World fusion is in effect. Haitian-born, New York-bred trumpeter Jean Caze and master Latin jazz percussionist Sammy Figueroa guest on the album.

 

Pollen Yoser Rodriguez
(Lulaworld Records)

Cuban bass player and singer Yoser Rodriguez debuts with an album that is a joy to listen to. Described by the record label as “a rich and winding fusion of Brazilian, African, Trinidadian, Cuban, and American pop influences,” the mood of the album fluctuates between elation and what the Brazilians call saudade, a kind of melancholy and longing. Marketing blurbs aside, Rodriguez delivers ten tracks that pique interest and inspire the will to listen repeatedly. They’re sung mainly in Spanish, and we’re also told these songs “explore the immigrant experience in Canada, environmental issues, love and friendship.” Language is no barrier to great songwriting. Piano, strings, and Latin horns create the tropical ambience for the unembellished voice of Rodriguez to directly weave his messages. Solid musicianship that shines a light on the growing Cuban influence and presence in Toronto, where Rodriguez is based now, is another hallmark of this solid debut.

 

SiroccoJeff Narell

Jeff Narell is the older brother of prolific steel pan recording artist Andy Narell. Together they were immersed into the world of the early steelbands — they participated in the Trinidad Music Festival on  steel pans in 1966, as children — and have never looked back. Sirocco is Narell’s fourth album as a leader, and finds him investigating the confluence between African percussion instruments and the New World invention of the steel pan. More than a simple dialogue between sounds and rhythms, this album showcases the link that has been suggested by ethnomusicologists as part of the syncretism — the merging of different cultures — evident in Caribbean music. The tunes explore melodies and sonic influences from both ends of the Middle Passage that show the retention of the African sound. Talking drums, djembes, strings, and chants are interwoven with melodies from the Caribbean to make this a useful album that showcases the steel pan in a different and important light.

 

More TrumpetKelly B & Hot Like Fire

Caribbean sounds, melodies, and rhythms are all the rage among a new generation of music listeners trying to grab the new “feel good” sound that will keep people dancing, and hopefully buying music. In enclaves and towns along the east coast of the United States, musicians — both from the Caribbean diaspora and US natives — are getting their jam on, too. Trumpeter Kelly Bolduc, a Berklee College alumna, has a twenty-five-year love affair with reggae and soca, building her chops in Trinidad bands, and forming her own band Hot Like Fire in Massachusetts. More Trumpet is her solo fully instrumental album, and features what Kelly B calls a dozen “groove-based Caribbean tunes.” She’s been described as a “sexy chick playin’ a mean horn and singin’ too,” but this diminishes her talent and her technical skill on her instrument. The music can and will make you dance to an island beat — whether you’re here in the Caribbean or anywhere else in the world.

 

Precious MetalsRon Reid 
(Mud Hut Music)

Ron Reid is a Berklee College of Music associate professor, and as such the expectations for this, his third album, are high — more for the continuing exploration of Afro-Caribbean rhythms in the context of jazz in the Americas. Superb musicianship by a host of Berklee alumnae give this album a finish as assured as it is consummate. Reid plays bass and arranges all the music on the album, featuring jazz, samba, Afro-pop, and calypso rhythms, among others, and segues between lyrical playing and evocative compositions that suggest varied moods. This Precious Metals project finds collaboration between and continuity with music that reflects Afro-Caribbean heritage, regardless of legacy. Melodies and rhythms are not static but celebratory. A balance of originals and covers of calypso and steel pan classics gives the album a leg up on the competition, since these songs have a sonic quality that positions the steel pan — and Caribbean music, for that matter — on a higher plane.

 

Single Spotlight

Cigarettes — Nailah Blackman

Nailah Blackman is the granddaughter of soca “originator” Ras Shorty I — as with jazz, a single source is still debated — yet she has moved beyond her DNA to absorb pop influences that place this young singer among a crop of new talent looking to its future outside these islands of influence. Her new release, “Cigarettes”lead single off a forthcoming album — tells the story as a first-person narrative of a personal encounter gone wrong in a unique way. It begins as a reminiscence of that exciting first date with a new love then dissolves into an anti-smoking campaign chant: “Smoke? No cigarettes in my room, no smoking!” A funky programmed kick drum over beautiful acoustic guitar rhythm makes you want to move. The rapid-fire lyrics sung by Blackman have a sound reminiscent of Gwen Stefani at her pop princess best. Poor guy, he didn’t know who he was up against. Love isn’t easy.

Reviews by Nigel A. Campbell