A TRUE jazz pioneer is the Port of Spain-born (in 1943) Rudy “Two left” Smith who in the mid-’60s, when he arrived in Europe like thousands of other immigrant ships from the Caribbean, brought the vibrancy of his culture with him. Smith’s surprising and unique contribution was to make the steel pan a true and innovative jazz instrument.
The steel drum, which Trinidadian percussive love created from oil barrels discarded across the island by US-owned multinationals like Texaco, has its origins in west African musical artistry and the virtuosi of the kora, sansa (thumb piano) and balafon.
The beauty and excitation of its sounds would visit my ears every night in Tobago in the ’60s as I marked my students’ English essays. The steel band tent of Our Boys Steel Orchestra was 50 yards along from the flat I rented, and I would never tire of hearing the balladic and rhythmic artistry of the panbeaters’ notes.
Smith grew up listening to some of his nation’s finest steel band musicians, carnivallers and calypsonians. He played his first pan when he was six and, as he grew, he heard records of US vibe artists like Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson and was much influenced by Oscar Peterson’s piano and John Coltrane’s saxophones, all helping to form his direction in jazz.
As a teenager, he was part of a Trinidadian band called the Merrymakers. When calypso became popular in Europe in the 1950s he grasped his opportunity and, finding a base in Sweden and Denmark, he became an arranger, pan-maker and tuner as well as a powerful jazz soloist and improviser.
Since 1983 Smith has led his own quartet in Denmark, playing alto pan with veteran pianist and composer Ole Matthiessen, drummer Ole Streenberg and bassist Hendrik Dhyrbye. On his new album, Glass World, Danish saxophonist Jesper Lovdal and Swedish guitarist Bjarne Roupe guest on several tracks.
Mathiesson is the writer of six of the album’s nine tunes, and as soon as his opener Stand By begins and Smith beats his pan, you hear his ringing vibrato relishing the melody as if this were Maracas Bay rather than Scandinavia.
The foursome are utterly attuned to each other’s musical ways, with Dhyrbye and Streenborg swinging relaxedly and Matthiesson’s solo assured and in perfect empathy with Smith’s mallets.
Blues for Rasta Prasta is an affectionate portrait and Smith’s tumbling cadences are a delight. Dhyrbye plays a delving solo before Smith returns, and you can hear the spirit if Milt Jackson’s blues-drenched vibes in his notes.
One for Bent quickly picks up a jaunty chorus before Smith’s agile notes skim off the caressed metal with a joyous aplomb.
Since the epochal 1939 recording of Body and Soul by the tenor saxophone nonpareil Coleman Hawkins, the tune has always been heard as a test piece for horn players. Smith’s rendition makes it a feast for pan virtuosi too as the notes roll serenely across the studio and Matthiesson follows with a solo of effusive tenderness.
Back to Trinidad for the Lord Kitchener calypso Old Lady Walk a Mile and a Half. There is a famous Pathe newsreel sequence of Kitch singing London is the Place for Me as he stepped off the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948, but on this record’s evidence, it is Copenhagen that is the place for Rudy Smith.
He plays the tune with a true verve, pride and swing, his roots bursting out of every note. Dhyrbye jumps in for a bouncing solo and Streenberg’s drums are lent a springing Caribbean spirit.
It’s very different from the Iberian rhapsody of Matthiesson’s Spanish Sparrow, pecked by Roupe’s guitar and the melodic lyricism of the pianist’s Coming Home, where Smith’s sheer buoyancy of sound seems to send his pans floating across the Baltic or the Caribbean for it is all one musical sea.
The title tune is gentle and beautiful and Smith’s pans sound so sonically pure. It seems incongruous to think they were born from Trinidad’s life of oil, and the constant resistance of the island’s oil workers, who turned base and rusted metal canisters into glorious sound. This is one of the jazz year’s most marvellous records: certainly one to buy and savour with a bottle of Trinidad rum and a roti.
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