The story of Leon Foster Thomas (not to be confused with the late jazz vocalist Leon Thomas) starts on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and continues in Miami. As a steel pan player who’s performed with Etienne Charles, James Moody, Hugh Mesekela and Sammy Figueroa, for starters, Thomas began to make his mark a couple of years ago as a leader with his release of What You Don’t Know.
Thomas is back again with Brand New Mischief, and the revelation about his music is how adaptable that steel pan is to jazz that is not island-oriented in the slightest. In fact, he seems to be making a conscious effort to avoid applying his instrument of choice to its most obvious setting and instead mining other rich areas of jazz. And you know what? That steel pan sounds just as natural in these other formats. Maybe it’s because the sonically pleasing, joyful sound of the pan, or the thoughtful way he plays it, or the effort he apparently puts in constructing smooth flowing but harmonically canorous songs. Nevertheless, after a while, Thomas’ steel pan doesn’t sound exotic at all. Just good.
Within this blueprint for success and with pianist Allen C. Paul, acoustic bassist Kurt Hengstebeck and drummer Ludwig Alfonso in tow, Thomas devised a record that varies in tenor for the most part from song to song. “Soul Window” is mainstream jazz with a modern rhythm, but with an estimable chorus and bridge; Thomas has conceived good material that he can use to bring to vivid life with his tonal rich instrument. He’s not unaware of contemporary currents, as shown by the shifty hip-hop inspired beats that grace “Sleepless Nights” and the funky bass vamp-derived “Brand New Mischief.” He can also deliver velvety, tender ballads like “Amour Bleu” and a tribute to his young daughter, “Annecy.” Latin rhythms — but not the Caribbean kind — are exploited on “Enchantment,” while “Baby Powder” is a soft samba excursion.
None of these ever feel like empty genre exercises, because the backing band brings the same tightness to each tune and Foster places his steel pan into each style effortlessly. That, I believe, is what makes Brand New Mischief a cool, relaxing listen from beginning to end in spite of the energy and the conscientious effort put into harmony and arrangements. Leon Foster Thomas perhaps didn’t insert everything he picked up in his native Trinidad into his music on this album, but what he did put in there was plenty good enough.
Brand New Mischief went on sale July 31. Visit Leon Foster Thomas’ Facebook page for more info.