From its rough-and-tumble beginnings amid the island of Trinidad's oil industry, the steel pan arose to become one of the few musical instruments to be developed in the Western Hemisphere in the 20th century. Like its Jamaican counterpart, reggae, steel-pan music has transcended the borders of the Caribbean and attracted devotees the world over. Also like reggae, pan music has broadened its tonal range to encompass a wide range of genres, not least of all jazz.
Into this rubric steps Andy Narell with an album that epitomizes the international nature of the pan-jazz phenomenon. Recorded in locales as diverse as Paris, New York City and Johannesburg, South Africa, The Passage showcases the "Stickman" continuing this process of entwining pans with jazz rhythms, this time with Calypsociation, a 30-piece French steel-pan orchestra.
Narell decided to record the group with special mike placements to capture each of the players, and then overdub sections of the band to create a highly detailed stereo mix. Other than the guest musicians, The Passage solely involves steel pans playing Narell's compositions, backed with percussion. The title-track opener is a solid introduction to the somewhat odd sound of a steel-pan orchestra playing jazz. Narell punctuates the midtempo rhythm with syncopated strikes as the band floats behind the melody in a sea of tremolo-sounding pan percussion.
Contrasting results come from the three hornmen who guest on The Passage. Tenor sax maestro Michael Brecker has to wade into a very murky and melancholy arrangement on "Song for Mia" but to his great credit he turns the plodding blues into a playful and near riotous romp. On "Mabouya" Paquito D'Rivera cooks a Latin-inspired dish over a canny waltz that Narell based on the changes to "'Round Midnight." On "Dee Mwa Wee"-written to an African rhythm in 12/8 and embellished by hand drumming-Hugh Masekela recalls the smooth grooves and tones of his own "Grazing" heyday as well as Grover Washington Jr.'s take on Bob Marley's "Jammin'." For its good performances and excellent sound quality, The Passage represents a significant achievement in the way steel-pan music is represented on CD.