May 2000

Andy Narell - Fire in the Engine Room
Heads Up 3056
HDCD encoded
Released: 2000

by Srajan Ebaen

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

[Reviewed on CD]We all slumber in peace knowing that the sun will rise and wake us the next morning -- unless it falls out of the sky, which, of course, hasn’t happened so far. One could be equally at peace knowing that the sun also rises each time Andy Narell delivers a new release. As far as I’m concerned, the opposite has yet to happen either. Once again, I am promised and find the dance-happy, rhythm-savvy, Calypso-jazz pan-alley scene of steel-drum music of which Andy Narell is by far the most famous and undisputed global ambassador.

OK mon, so color me biased, but chill now and get you down. Believe it or not, but some ambassadors actually do get to make important waves, sometimes even without realizing it. September 1999 saw Narell headed to South Africa for his first time. He went on to discover townships that had created listening clubs where folks pool their money together to buy recordings. One such club in Soweto has as its charter a dedication -- to promote jazz as a means to break down race and class barriers. To Narell’s utter amazement, this club is called the Andy Narell Jazz Club. He humbly dedicates this album to them -- call it non-verbal grassroots patriotism, the spirituality of music that speaks the universal language of feelings and movement and creates change without ever making headline news.

Similar to Rio de Janeiro’s annual carnival, the bacchanal, Trinidad and Tobago host a fierce contest called Panorama that annually selects the top steel-drum ensemble performance and composition. Last year proved historically unique. For the first time ever, a participating group, the Skiffle Bunch, contracted a white American composer to source their competition tune. The islanders have long since embraced Narell’s unchallenged virtuosity on their Caribbean banner instrument as one of their own. However, allowing him to enter this most national of contests initially produced waves of a different kind. No one anticipated this more acutely than the artist himself. He cautioned the group that his signature style wouldn’t be commercial enough to stand a chance of winning, if winning indeed was their goal. Simultaneously, he denied any interest whatsoever to relinquish his artistic vision and adapt instead to the established and homogenized competition format of speed, volume and razzle-dazzle.

To Narell’s surprise, these creative restrictions fell on supportive ears. Week-long practice jams then commenced in the bustling San Francisco Coffee Street Boulevard that served as the Skiffle Bunch’s 100+ pan yard where Narell slowly worked out the intricacies of his tune with the band. This eventually led the ensemble to defeating its own bravely accepted assumptions. Not only did they pass Panorama’s semi-finals, but they scored eighth rather than last among the 12 finalists, thereby displacing some perennial crowd-pleasers. This victory underscored the group’s belief that artistic creativity will always convert an audience, even one as challenging and expectant as annual contest judges with Calypso in their very blood and a home turf tradition to defend. It also rewarded Narell for gunning with his sticks -- pardon le pan.

Fire in the Engine Room is Narell’s tenth album as a leader and features his Panorama finals tune, aptly named "Coffee Street." Like the other seven pieces, it’s a lengthy composition with a far-reaching arc of development, quite removed from the paint-by-numbers schemes of so much contemporary jazz. The album’s title boiler-room compartment is Trini-slang, and it refers to a steel band’s rhythm section. This room is traditionally occupied by a trap drummer and five to six percussionists who might hammer away on the most unlikely of materials, say spoons, bottles and the occasional coconut-headed tourist suffering from inhibition and stiff joints. A cozy kitchen ultimately proves to be the real heart of a lived-in home, providing such accoûtrements as spoons, bottles and cracked coconuts. Similarly, the islanders regard this engine room not only as the true and pulsating nexus from whence the apparent soloist jamming away on his cans in the front row is controlled, guided, propelled and energized, but also as the secret, soulful heart of the actual groove.

Fire is an amalgam of three recording sessions, each with its own ensemble "shot on location" in Paris, New York and San Francisco, and sports Narell on various pans, pianos and keyboards, plus all of his own compositions. The Paris group features Mario Canonge on piano, Michel Alibo on bass and Jean Philippe Fanfant on drums, and they dish out French-Caribbean fare around the beguine, Grand Belair and mazooka rhythms from Guadeloupe and Martinique. Louis Mhlanga, a guitarist from Zimbabwe, lends a helping hand here as well as in both other formations, and he might be responsible for the Afro-derived rhythms that keep entering into this rollicking mix. The New York-based team reunites Narell with the rhythm section from The Caribbean Jazz Project, which he co-led with Paquito D’Rivera and Dave Samuels for two other very happening Heads Up records, and includes pianist Dario Eskenazi, bassist Oscar Stagnaro and percussionists Luis Conte and Mark Walker. Their tunes cover Brazilian samba vibes, hip-hop sensibilities and distinct jazz inflections. Last, Narell’s San Francisco home group again teams him with bassist Keith Jones, drummer Paul van Wageningen and percussionist Jesus Diaz to cut the Panorama ‘99 track and "Appreciation." The press release refers to the latter as "Pan 2000." Perhaps this indicates that Narell plans to mix it up again at the upcoming Panorama pan mayhem in Trinidad later this year.

If heaven is a place where emasculated choirs intone endless hosannas and requiems that waft weightlessly into the upper ethers like incense, then hell -- my idea of paradise in other words -- is the other place. There, all the hard-sweating cats incite their listeners to gyrate, shimmy, let lose and get with it, and if anything’s wafting into the air, it had better be some choice island weed and not myrrh. The rhythmic complexity here alone is enough to make you think devilish thoughts. It’s also a clear giveaway to why the Trinis really had no choice but to embrace Narell. Even though American, skinny and kind of Hare Krishna-looking with his shaven head, he plays his white ass off in a way that seems possible only if you grew up inhaling and practicing these rhythms from when you were little, which, incidentally, he did from the age of seven, but in New York, not Tobago. His dad, a social worker, had hired West Indian pan players to help ghetto kids get off the streets and into a community center at the lower east side of Manhattan.

The long and the short of all this? Simple: Fire in the Engine Room is music in the key of fun. Funky and very seriously so. The title couldn’t be more succinct -- the rhythm section is smmmoking. It’s a real workout of an album, superbly laid down, ultra-sophisticated in execution, yet instantly accessible in appeal, even causal. And audiophiles will have ample opportunity to investigate whether they suffer from slow bass, transient dullness or acoustic overhang -- ‘cause if they do, there’s so much rhythm here it’ll clump together like wet sugar, enough to stand up a spoon and poison your brain upon consumption.

Narell’s done it again -- he seems incapable of delivering anything other than a top-notch product. Judged against his last two excellent releases, The Long Time Band and Behind the Bridge, he is, impossible though it seems, still finding room to go up rather than level out. I’m not alone in this enthusiasm. September 1999 saw Narell play a free concert to an audience of 80,000 in South Africa, and the crowd knew all the songs as though they were pop music. If you’re not hip to Andy Narell yet, this should tell you something! Rather than see a chiropractor, let Andy hammer your aches away on his sonorous trash cans.