Modern Sound Quintet
Rudy Smith Quartet

Still Around
Steel An'Skin

Reggae is Here Once Again

[EM Records,]

First, there was the Underwater Series, showcasing some of Australia's finest surf-music gurus, while now EM comes out with a very unique Steel Pan Series. Born out of necessity to highlight some of the best steel pan players around - past and present - so far the series' three releases have emphasized the past.

Rudy Smith should not be an odd name to anyone enamored by the sound of the steel pan. Forming the Modern Sound Quartet in Spain in 1964, Smith became famous for playing in a jazz band that featured a steel pan drummer. Though he had a good following of fans, there was a large contingent of jazz stalwarts who refused to take his music seriously as they found his chosen instrument to be too odd. By 1968, Smith moved to Sweden where he formed a new version of the Modern Sound Quintet. Featuring pianist John Roachford, bassist Sigfrid Macintosh, drummer George Allyn, conga player Kofi Ayivor and the leader on steel drums, the band had developed a unique sound that could not be mistaken for anyone else at the time. Recorded in 1971, "Otinku" saw the fully realized sound of the band. The quintet rocked, they swung solid but most of all, they enlightened those in close proximity. Though much of this music could pass for standard be-bop jazz fare, the selection in the percussive department makes it stand out worlds apart from anything that has transpired before its release. Smith's steel drums spread a gyrating, echo-filled effect to the other five members of his quintet. Rochford is an accomplished enough pianist, though he tends to play it straight when propositioned by Smith's melodic lines. Only conga master Kofi Ayivor and drummer George Allyn take the call and carry the music to higher dimensions. With their abundantly spirited, rumbling concoction of heated interplay, they're able to come up with a mixture of groove-based rhythms. While laid-back in nature, the music of Rudy Smith was nothing but a ride into pure adventure 

After a failed attempt with new musical forms with his Modern Sound Corporation, Rudy Smith broke up the band in 1980 and moved to Denmark. In 1983, he formed the Rudy Smith Quartet, which further showcased the talents of this Trinidadian steel plan legend. In asking pianist Ole Matthiessen to join, along with bassist Niels Prastholm and drummer Gilbert Matthews, Smith actually formed the very first band under his own name. The music here is graceful, without crossing any thresholds into mundane territories. Smith's composition "Ursia" takes on Arabic music and Flamenco in one large swoop. With heavy-handed motifs, Smith even allows himself to take a breather a plays subtle steel drum passage, while Pe-We accompanies the band on a haunting soprano sax excursion. Most energetic number is a Johnny Dyani original. Entitled "Blues for Bradick", the number sees the quartet take on a sped-up, lively stance of groove-oriented, post-bop concoctions. Even Matthiessen sounds exuberantly alive on the ivories for this number. Album's closing number "El Vito" [penned by Spanish saxophonist Pedro Iturralde] sees Costa Apetrea join the quartet on acoustic guitar. His flamenco styling brings out another dimension to the band altogether. It's here all members come together as one and join powers under Smith's leadership. With a large dose of lively be-bop, masterful conversation, as seen by these two re-issues, Rudy Smith's bands were always high on the creative scale, with talent to spare.

Formed in the UK during the 70's, Steel an'Skin was a band that was very serious in showcasing the steel drum tradition of its members various homelands. The members originated from variety of countries including Trinidad, Ghana, Jamaica, St. Kitts and UK. The band's founder, percussionist Peter Blackman envisioned his ensemble as a meeting place for traditional African music, reggae, soul, disco and funk. Most of these musicians performed with Ginger Johnson's Afrikan Drummers. "Reggae is Here Once Again" is more a collection than a proper album. Title track along with three other pieces made up the "Reggae is Here Once Again" 12" which was recorded in 1979, while two other tracks are taken from "Acid Rain" LP released five years later. The music is literally all over the map. While the title track flirts with disco, reggae and light-dub elements, "Hi Life" takes on traditional African percussion and makes use of it to good effect. I love the way heavier dub elements infiltrate "Afro Punk Reggae (Dub)", which is also filled to the brim with steel pans, cello pans, bass pans, timbales and all sorts of imaginable percussion. Its easily-transcendental quality and its willingness to meet the listener half-way, while introducing something new into the cultural mix is reason enough to celebrate this re-issue. Previously unreleased "John Belly Mama" features a good portion of call and response vocalizing, while sticking to the steel pan mandate. During the 80's, the band built a 32-track recording studio, where young musicians were allowed to come and polish off their skills. They also founded "Project Solo", which allowed members of the Afro-Caribbean community to learn flying a plane from the ground up. Sadly, the band disbanded in 1992. Lucky for us, the album comes packaged with a half-an-hour long DVD, which features stellar performances of the band at their peak in 1979. Long live the steel pans of the world! Question that begs to be asked is whether there's more to come in this series.

  - Tom Sekowski

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