You wouldn’t think there’d be much use for a steel pan player in jazz other than light, spare accompaniment or a special effect in one encore. Leon Foster Thomas changes the game for all steel pan players few and far between on yet another nervy, yet highly musical album, Metamorphosis on Ropeadope Records (June 3, 2016).
Originally from Trinidad Tobago, the Miami-based Foster Thomas isn’t alone in his steel pan jazz adventure. He goes on a fun tear on eight originals and one cover of Procol Harum’s 1967 rock classic, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” with the likes of trumpeter/EVI player John Daversa, percussionist Sammy Figueroa, tenor saxophonist/flutist David Palma, guitarist Fernando Ulibarri, bassist Kurt Hengstebeck, pianist Martin Bejerano, drummer Michael Piolet, and trumpeter Jean Caze.
“Take A Bow (Tribute To Nelson Mandela)” starts off on a similar riff to the Doobie Brothers’ 1976 hit, “Takin’ It To The Streets.” But any similarity to the pop song fades quickly as soon as steel pan hustler Foster Thomas and the horns and reeds get to the meat of the situation. Foster Thomas syncs up with the pulse of the song, but then branches out for his own melodic, rhythmic twist that never gets tired. He also knows how to incorporate intricate, exotic, and pulse-racing beats, especially on this percussively enhanced tonic.
His righteous version of “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” stays on the same melodic page as Procol Harum, giving him a chance to showcase what he can do on the steel pan. He bounces from scripture to mimicry of vibes, drums, and even keys in his threaded solo throughout, carrying the melody to its ultimate fruition, accompanied by piano and a hushed percussive cymbals in the background.
Foster Thomas gets a lot more complicated on the other tunes. “Kai-Fusion” bristles with entertaining showmanship, dissolving the lines between jazz and funk as his steel pan weaves in the muscle of the lines between horns and percussion. He continues his groundbreaking path as a natural part of a jazz band on “Midnight Refrain,” off the open beats of a bass, creating hypnotic shifts.
“Gulf Of Paria” with Daversa is sheer, jazz brilliance, commandeering the straight-ahead concepts of the past into an R&B-laced future. He really plays with a deft hand, controlling the vibrato and the echo like the champion he is.
In many ways, Metamorphosis is leaps ahead of his last, R&B-favored album, Brand New Mischief (2012), which barely scraped the surface of the jazz potential. He made that record in honor of the birth of his daughter, earning plaudits from Jazz Weekly and All About Jazz.
If anyone’s going to raise the level of the game with the steel pan, it’s this guy. The songwriter, drummer, and arranger has been in award-winning bands and helped other artists take top honors with his gift on a rarely appreciated instrument. Slowly but surely, he’s taking steel pan to the next level.
· July 10 Museum Complex, Gorki Leninskiye, Russia
· July 11 Moscow International House of Music
· July 13 Kolizey Theater, Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation
· Sept. 09 Fort Hunter Park, Harrisburg, Pa.