Sakesho: Carribean Jazz Hits D.C.
“ By the end of the evening, Sakesho had successfully transformed the usually sedate, supper-club crowd into the cheering participants in a festival of sound. ”
April 8, 2004
You never know what to expect when you head out for a night of jazz, and to me that’s the best part of the jazz world. The music has become so diverse, so multi-cultural, and so stylistically varied that on any given evening even the most seasoned listener is liable to stumble onto something that not only provides a night of exceptional entertainment, but can also open up whole new vistas of exploration. In an era of pre-packaged, clearly labeled instant gratification, that kind of discovery provides a rare and unusual thrill, and it’s precisely what I experienced last Thursday listening to steel pannist Andy Narrell and his quartet, Sakesho, at D.C.’s Blues Alley.
Comprised of steel pan innovator Andy Narell together with pianist Mario Canonge and bassist Michel Alibo, both of whom hail from Martinique, and Chicago drummer Mark Walker sitting in for band-mate Jean Philippe Fanfant, Sakesho finds its origins in traditional jazz and Caribbean music, the resulting blend of which produces a fiery, rhythmically startling, and undeniably hip concoction. Formed in Paris, where all four members currently reside, Sakesho has developed not only a remarkably distinct sound owing to their fluid joining of jazz improvisation with the flowing, infectious rhythms of Martinique, Trinidad, and Afro-Cuba, but also an equally remarkable unified and energetic performance style. Perhaps most notable of all, though, was their ability to import this vibrant, sunlight-infused and eminently celebratory feel into the brick, lowlight warren of Blue’s Alley’s quintessentially East Coast jazz club atmosphere.
Opening with a dynamic calypso based tune titled “Laventille,” Sakesho quickly captured the capacity crowd’s attention, Walker working together with Alibo to keep the beat popping while Narell drew beautifully smooth tones from his set of steel pans. Immediately transformed by the pans’ inimitable sound, the whole crowd quickly settled into the groove and by the end of the piece it felt like the entire club had been transported, the tables rearranged on a stretch of beach or outdoor patio. Such is the evocative power of the steel-pan and Sakesho’s capacity to build an inclusive and high-energy mood.
After introducing the band to loud applause, Narell continued with an Alibo composition, “Karawak Dream.” A thundering crescendo of integrated piano, bass and drums built around the ¾, almost march-like rhythm of another traditional Caribbean form, this time from Martinique, “Karawak Dream” showcased the group’s tight-knit integration, as well as an extended solo by Narell which revealed both his versatility on the pans and the truly astonishing level of intensity he is capable of building.
Raising the energy level even further with the night’s next tune, a more traditional composition by Mario Canonge “Roule Quadrille,” the band whipped the audience into a frenzy of clapping and hollering with a series of solos and spirited trading culminating in a roof-raising drum solo by Walker that brought the whole room alive with its bright energy and fantastic clarity. A highly imaginative jazz interpretation of folkloric island dance forms, this was one of the evening’s many highlights.
The night’s next surprise came in the form of bassist Alibo’s extended solo introduction to the set’s next tune, “Grand Fabrice.” Turning up the volume on his electric bass, Alibo altered the mood, emitting long, sustained notes that resonated with an introspective, almost melancholic feel. Fans of such Ambient bands as Labradford and MAIN might recognize some of the low-end, controlled feedback techniques Alibo employed, but in a jazz setting this display was as unusual as it was provocative. Developing the waves of sound into an articulate, moving solo Alibo lead the rest of the band members into the tune’s main body, each joining their voices, building together an intricate and beautifully paced tune marked by Narell’s distinct voice and expressive range.
Taking a break, the rest of the band sat out while Canonge presented two solo pieces, both of which exhibited a precise style well-steeped in classic jazz, as well as great wit and dexterity. A humorous player, Canonge flew over the keyboard mixing stride, bop, and his own personal style into a powerful, crowd pleasing combination.
Following the solo pieces and another short explanation by Narell of the tunes’ origins, the evening concluded with the band’s long, intoxicating performance of Narell composition, “Song for Mia.” A complex, rollicking tune full of dynamic changes, intense solos, including another blistering, howling extravaganza by Walker, this last piece epitomized Sakesho as a group.