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Leon Foster Thomas: Metamorphosis

Dave Wayne By

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Throughout the history of jazz, what once seemed to be oddball instruments have inexorably become part of accepted sonic landscape, while others have fallen into disuse. It's hard to believe that the vibraphone, flute, and violin were once seen as un-swinging, non-jazz instruments, while the banjo and tuba were considered essential linchpins of the jazz sound. Some instruments—both the clarinet and the tuba leap to mind—have gone fully 180 degrees from hip to obsolete and back to hip again. Others have remained on the fringe until a key virtuoso is able to make a convincing case for their non-novelty use. Good examples of the latter are Gregoire Maret's stellar work with the chromatic harmonica and Susan Alcorn's improv magic on the steel guitar. The steel pans are in a similar position, though no one has really taken the instrument to the next level. Not yet, anyway. Long associated with easygoing, tourist-pleasing Caribbean calypso and reggae sounds, the limited range and inflexible timbre of the steel pans make their use in a creative, non-smooth-jazz context damn near impossible. Despite the best efforts of Andy Narell and Othello Molineaux (the latter has been almost Herculean in this regard), the steel pans remain a novelty instrument in jazz.

The Trinidadian percussionist and composer Leon Foster Thomas is the latest player on the scene to promote the steel pans as a plausible lead voice in a "serious" jazz environment. His third album as a leader, Metamorphosis makes a very convincing case. Armed with a Bachelor of Music from Florida Memorial University and a Masters in Music from Florida International University, Foster Thomas certainly has what it takes, compositionally, to frame his instrument in the most favorable light possible. He's also an enthralling improviser, and Metamorphosis provides him with a diversity of musical environments in which to display his abilities.

The most rewarding tracks on Metamorphosis are those that stray the farthest from the polite Caribbean-themed pop-jazz one normally expects from a steel pan album. Thomas, saxophonist David Palma, trumpeters John Daversa and Jean Caze, and the excellent backing band (special props to drummer Mike Piolet and pianist Martin Bejerano) crank up the intensity to the max on "Cry of Hope," a dynamic, post-Coltrane romp that edges into free-bop territory. Stuff like this would—without question—clear the patio at any seaside resort. No less artful is "Gulf of Paria," a delicate jazz waltz. Thomas' extraordinarily lyrical pan solo here is perhaps the finest on this album. Thomas is also quite adept at the sort of creative jazz-funk that's currently in resurgence thanks to players such as Kamasi Washington. The album's first two tracks, "Kai Fusion" and "Midnight Refrain," are excellent examples of nu-jazz fusion: plugged-in jazz that's brainy and danceable. Again, Thomas' rhythm section, and particularly Bejerano, Piolet, and bassist Kurt Hengstebeck provide buoyant, colorful and stylistically flexible backing.

The rest of the album, while equally well-played, is a bit less interesting. "Dubplate Special," with its second- line inspired rhythm, is a party-oriented groove that benefits from Thomas' excellent extended improvisation. "Delusion of a Dream" and "Unknown Memory" are rather predictable jazz-funk; the latter an appealing feature for Daversa's unhinged EVI soloing. The saccharine "Take a Bow" suffers slightly by its resemblance to the The Doobie Brothers' hit "Takin' It to The Streets." Yet it is almost completely redeemed by Caze's excellent, Miles Davis-inspired trumpet solo. Thomas' slowed-down version of "Whiter Shade of Pale" actually works quite well as a jazz ballad, and as an opportunity for Thomas to show what he—and his instrument—are capable of.

Track Listing: Kai-Fusion; Midnight Refrain; Gulf Of Paria; In The Corner; Delusion Of A Dream; Unknown Memory; Dubplate Swing; Take A Bow; A Whiter Shade Of Pale; Cry Of Hope.

Personnel: Leon Foster Thomas; steel pan, percussion; Martin bejerano: piano; Kurt Hengstebeck: upright bass, electric bass; Michael Piolet: drums; Jean Caze: trumpet; David Palma: tenor sax, flute; Fernando Ulibarri: guitar; John Daversa: trumpet, EVI; Sammy Figueroa: percussion.

Title: Metamorphosis | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Ropeadope

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