And now, in addition to the numerous Afro-Caribbean elements inherent in his music, Narell is exploring the French connection.Although rich in its own culture and history, the European continent isn’t generally associated with steel band music. So when Narell, a Native of New York, went to Paris to teach in the spring of 2001, he was surprised to find Calypsociation, a world-class, 30-piece steel orchestra. He and the band hit it off almost instantly.
"I had sent over the chart of Coffee Street (before I came here), and they played part of it for me," Narell recalled in a prepared statement. "I could hear after two minutes that I wanted to work with this band."
The fit between Narell and Calypsociation was so tight that the band commissioned him to direct, compose and arrange two 10-minute pieces for the second European Steelband Festival in 2002. The resulting music sounded so sweet, and the experience was so rewarding for all involved, that Narell continued working with Calypsociation - a collaboration that’s documented on The Passage.
Available on CD and SACD, The Passage brings a unique viewpoint to the music, merging his lifetime experience in jazz, world music and the recording studio. It doesn’t hurt that three jazz masters have joined him on this recording: Michael Brecker, Paquito D’Rivera and Hugh Masekela.
"A lot of jazz musicians don’t take steel band music seriously," Narell said. "So it was important to me that the soloists should not only be great players, but that they would approach this music with respect, and come to the session with the anticipation that they were about to play with a tight, swinging band - which is what Calypsociation is. "Mike, Paquito and Hugh exceeded my expectations, which were very high. They add a whole new dimension to the record."
The soloists join a long list of artists who’ve performed or recorded with Narell over the years, a company that includes Dave Samuels, Marcus Miller, Chucho Valdes, Bela Fleck and Spyro Gyra.
In the 63 years since the steel pan was invented in Trinidad, it has become a symbol of politics, religion, class struggle, and a sweet fire in the soul, all rolled into one. Every year, just before Carnival, the entire country locks in on the widely popular pan competition known as Panorama.
Although only seven songs are on The Passage, there’s nearly an hour’s worth of music; several of the tracks hover around the 10-minute mark. However, being longer than the radio-friendly, four- to five-minute recording is not a negative thing. The music is constantly in motion, and never drags. Even listeners not accustomed to this style of music should find the album enjoyable.
The Passage opens with the title song, a steel band tour de force that was commissioned by Calypsociation for the 2002 festival. Narell has used the form and structure of a Panorama arrangement to create a stunning composition.
Song for Mia is a beautiful, irresistible rhythm from the French Caribbean. Narell solos briefly, then Brecker steps up for a brilliant tenor saxophone solo.
The Long Way Back uses the baiao, a samba rhythm from northern Brazil, and it merges the batucada percussion of Brazil with the steel band. Andy’s solo is breathtaking.
Next is Sea of Stories, an Afro-Cuban sounding composition that Narell has recorded twice before. This presentation is an expanded version with a new third movement that Calypsociation premiered at the European Steelband Festival in 2002.
Mabouya is based on a 3/4 rhythm from the French Caribbean known as mazooka. The song pays homage to jazz legend Thelonious Monk, as its harmonic structure and form are based on ’Round Midnight. D’Rivera adds a sizzling solo.
Masekela then steps forward on flugelhorn for Dee Mwa Wee, a driving 12/8 African groove. A battery of hand drummers adds extra punch.
The album closes with Coffee Street, which was originally composed for the 1999 Panorama in Trinidad. Sounding off at a generous 11:14, it’s an excellent thrill ride - the perfect nightcap after a smorgasbord of American jazz, Caribbean, African, Brazilian and French rhythms.
Narell and Calypsociation are a match made in musical heaven.