April 1999

Andy Narell - Behind the Bridge
Heads Up 3047
Released: 1998

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Béla Fleck did it for the humble banjo of bluegrass cowboys picking alongside country-life songs. Andy Narell has done it for the pan, the steel drums of Trinidad; formerly obscure side-show acts have been transformed into headline stars. Can you think of anything more humble than playing trash cans of the ghetto steel variety? Thankfully, the human spirit is so very resilient and adaptive to its expressive needs. Poor, oppressed farmers in Japan turned humble farming tools into dazzling martial-arts weapons. The islanders of Trinidad fashioned for themselves weapons of a different kind to celebrate their funky souls amidst the squalor of abject poverty.

The title of Andy Narell’s most recent collection refers to the area on the lower east side of Port of Spain, Trinidad where the African descendants of Trinidadians settled after slavery was abolished in the 1830s. This area was connected to the rest of the city by a lone bridge, and even today, some of the best steel-band music is said to come from "behind the bridge."

The opening track, "Lamentos," thus begins with a Carnival-type samba rhythm that ushers in a Pixinguinha tune replete with cavaquinho, the little indigenous guitar of Brazil. Narell’s command of the simple pans is so astonishingly far out that he can duplicate two-handed piano fingerings on his singing drums using up to four sticks simultaneously. Actual piano, guitars and an assortment of percussion complete his ensemble, and everyone involved is a master at very complex and devilishly evasive syncopations. The piano’s bass register is used instead of an actual double bass to provide a firm and solid foundation for the group. As usual with any Narell album, each number takes its time to explore, develop and complete its own course -- no three-minute short-takes here. This allows for long, drawn-out compositional arches that span, like rainbows and suspension bridges, a lot of ground, and tell stories.

Thus, quite tellingly, the second track’s title is "Sea of Stories," which is a new interpretation of an original composition Narell introduced on an earlier release, where it was an overdubbed multi-pan chorus. A slow and moody first half goes up-tempo partway through the tune when another island groove with machine-gun conga fire propels Narell into Blue-Note-jazz–tinged runs over the piano’s unfathomable against-the-grain bass lines and interwoven percussion madness.

"Jutland," as provided by pianist Dario Eskenazi, is a slower, dreamier excursion that could take place in a bamboo lounge where sweet tropical cocktails are served with little paper umbrellas, and patrons sport wraparound saris or lunghis while the warm surf in the background beckons to late-night beach romance. "Rainorama" continues with the carnival-esque atmosphere of the opening track, and there again is the cavaquinho strumming along the pan’s rolling, dark-toned melodic lines. Periods of very dense rhythmic overlap open into more parallel play among all instruments, only to converge again in the wild melee of tropical-calypso bacchanal.

"Madalena" is an Ivan Lins tune, while "Nuff Respect" is by David Rudder, who contributed heavily on Narell’s album The Long Time Band. It relinquishes the floor to solo steel drum in all its slightly out-of-tune-tinged glory that is reminiscent of the warmth and minor tipsiness that can be instilled in a bar piano by un-tuning its doubled or tripled strings in the mid and lower registers ever so slightly. One note’s multiple strings become miniature off-color chords instead of just summing into higher amplitude.

While former Narell releases appeared on the Windham Hill label, this one’s on Heads Up, which has also given us the fabulous tropical splendor of Roberto Pereras and Carlos Guedes South American harps and also the two volume of The Caribbean Jazz Project that brought together Narell on pans, Dave Samuels on vibes and Paquito D’Rivera on sax and clarinet.

So bravo, olé, or whatever islanders shout when they thoroughly approve of such a funky jam session!