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Narell, steel drums still find the joy in music

Fire in the Engine Room
Fire in the Engine Room
By Andy Narell

Heads Up International: 2000

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This review first appeared in the July 3, 2000 edition of the American Reporter.

It's hard to think of anyone who's done as much to promote the steel drum in the United States as Andy Narell. Ironically, Narell doesn't even play the calypso that originally gave birth to the steel drum, but a Latin-tinged jazz that only occasionally dips into the Trinidadian sound.

According to legend, the steel drum was invented during World War II by the black inhabitants of Trinidad when the British colonial government prohibited them from playing skinhead drums which it was believed were used to transmit messages of mutiny and revolution. Supposedly, after a German U-boat set its empty oil cans adrift and some washed ashore on Trinidad, some of the locals found that by using a hammer to shape the head of the oil drum, you ended up with an instrument that could be tuned and played as a lead melodic instrument.

How much of that is true and how much modern myth may (as with the earliest history of jazz and blues) be lost to time. What is undoubtable, though, is the distinctive sound of the steel drum.

His most recent release, "Fire in the Engine Room," shows Narell returning to a funkier, meatier jazz than he played during his stint with the Caribbean Jazz Project, which devolved from a Latin fusion into an easy-listening light jazz sound.

As always with Narell, there is a strong world beat groove running throughout that meshes well with the exotic shimmering sound of the steel drum. On this release, that world influence comes through more in the rhythmic underpinning than in the solos or melodies. Luis Conte's percussion borrows from Latin American rhythms, African figures, even Pan-Pacific styles and traditions.

On past releases, Narell has often played both steel drums and piano (using overdubs) or swapped back and forth from one song to the next. Here, he brings in other piano players to provide that balance and contrast, and focuses on his steel drums.

Ever the ensemble player, Narell prefers to let his fellow bandmates take the spotlight. His generosity and modesty are admirable, but his solos are too good for too much of that teamwork stuff. An inventive improvisor, Narell's ability to take a melodic theme and rework it eight different ways remains a treat.

As with accordion or other non-mainstream instruments, the steel pan drum can become a toy, a diversion in the hands of a lesser artist. Narell is too talented, too professional for that to ever happen. Instead, he keeps things sounding fresh and adventurous, and puts the focus on the music.