Born: March 18, 1954 Primary Instrument: Percussion
Andy Narell has spent more than a quarter century exploring the subtleties and complexities of steel pan and grafting them to the jazz idiom. He's one of only a small handful of steel pan players in the world who are playing jazz, and perhaps the only one among that coterie to commit an entire career � live and in the studio � to creating new music for the pan in that context.
In recent years, Narell has also explored the potential of the steel pan on an orchestral level. He enlisted the services of Calypsociation, a thirty-piece steel pan orchestra based in Paris, to record The Passage, his 2004 recording on the Heads Up label. That exploration continues with the release of Tatoom: Music for Steel Orchestra in February 2007. In addition to Narell playing all 22 pans in meticulously layered and carefully mixed orchestral arrangements, Tatoom also features three brilliant soloists: guitarist and labelmate Mike Stern, tenor saxophonist David Sanchez and percussionist Luis Conte. With drummers Mark Walker and Jean Philippe Fanfant driving the rhythm section Narell’s steelband sound has an unmistakable jazz groove.
Tatoom was recorded in various locales around the world, including Paris, New York, Boston, LA, the SF Bay Area, West Virginia, and Mississippi.
“This whole record was recorded one instrument at a time,” says Narell. “It was quite different from The Passage, where I recorded thirty pan players live. I started with the drums, the congas, the percussion and the iron, and then I put all the pans on one at a time. Then finally the soloists.”
This attention detail and commitment to creative perfection � no matter the scale � is nothing new for Narell, who has been almost singlehandedly ushering steel pan music into the mainstream since the 1980s. After a string of critically praised and commercially successful albums on Windham Hill Jazz throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Narell joined the Heads Up label with the release of Behind the Bridge in 1998, followed by Fire in the Engine Room in 2000. But in the midst of hammering out his career � recording in the States; playing festivals and other gigs around the U.S., Europe and the Caribbean; composing for the Panorama steel band festival in Trinidad; laying down tracks on albums, film and commercials � he was unaware of a grassroots movement taking shape in South Africa that would have a dramatic impact on his musical and cultural perspective.
The end of apartheid in 1994 � which included a lifting of economic restrictions and a transition to majority rule in South Africa � allowed residents of the major cities and outlying townships easier access to recorded music from around the world. A network of “listening clubs” sprouted throughout the region as low-income South Africans pooled their monies to buy CDs of their favorite artists. By the late ‘90s, Narell had ascended to folk-hero status in a fan club he knew nothing about.
Narell collided with his own destiny in the fall of 1999 during a visit to South Africa for the Arts Alive festival, where nearly 80,000 people turned out for his performance (he’d only expected to fill a few 200- or 300-seat clubs during his visit). The response to his music was so powerful and inspiring that he returned to South Africa the following spring for an extensive concert tour that reunited him with the band he’d played with during his initial visit. Live in South Africa, released in 2001, chronicles his two-night stand at the Blues Room in Johannesburg at the tail end of the tour.
A year later, still buoyed by the South Africa experience, Narell joined pianist Mario Canonge, bassist Michel Alibo and drummer Jean Philippe Fanfant to form Sakésho, a quartet with deep roots in the French Caribbean. Sakésho � and the album of the same name, released in 2002 � is a beguiling and sophisticated hybrid that maintains a reverence for its roots while steering jazz into the hippest currents of contemporary music.
In contrast to the lean quartet setting of Sakésho, The Passage in 2004 marked Narell’s first foray into the much larger and more layered context of steel orchestra and its subtle but unmistakable relationship to jazz � a relationship that becomes all the more evident on Tatoom.
“This album is very different from what’s going on in steelband music,” says Narell. “There’s a lot of writing for the band that's meant to sound like jazz soloing. The idea was that instead of just coming back to the themes after the guests play their solos, that instead the steelband would respond with its own solo. As always, I hope I've added something new to the conversation, that I've contributed something that wasn't there before, and that people will enjoy this music and love the sound of a steelband as much as I do.