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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Clyde "Lightning" George - Steel Pan Monster

Jam sessions can always be a surprise. I went to Mike Finnerty's jazz jam at Bill's Blues Bar in Evanston IL last night. A very fit fellow showed up and started to unpack his instrument - he wheeled in a bass drum case. I was puzzled for a while as he assembled his kit, then realized that he was setting up a set of two steel pans - the tenor set, to be precise. In no time, this fine musician (Clyde "Lightning" George) was tapping out bebop and blues on steel drums! The sounds of the steel pans are associated with the islands of the Caribbean and calypso music. Lightning jumps genres like a rabbit - yes, he can play the lilting themes of the islands, but he can also bang out "A Night in Tunisia" at breakneck speed. Lightning was born and raised in Trinidad (the birthplace of the steel drum and steel bands), but now spends quite a bit of time in Chicago's western suburb, Oak Park (the famous birthplace of Ernest Hemingway). Clyde George and Mike Finnerty (the locally-famous tenor sax man) have great musical rapport. It was a special night at Finnerty's jam.

I went to a college with a fellow named Andy Narell - Andy was a New York kid that took up the steel drums and moved to California to attend UC Berkeley. You can hear Andy from time to time on the "smooth jazz" radio stations that Clear Channel has established in most major metropolitan areas of the U.S.; he is probably the best-known steel pan player in the world. Clyde George can definitely hang in there with Andy. The sound of this instrument is part of America's musical stew now, and that is a good thing.

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