All Trumps

Eight of Hearts Concert
A review by Orville Wright

It is fair to say that every single patron at the Eight of Hearts Concert on May 8, 2010 would have heard about the game of All Fours, even if they may never have played it. It is for this reason, therefore that I will use the eight of hearts as a metaphor for my assessment of the concert.
Card players will understand that in a game of All Fours, if hearts is trump and you are holding the ace of hearts in your hand and feel that you could hang a jack with yuh ace, you start feeling pretty good.  If you have been playing a couple of games with twelve chalks and at its conclusion you realize that your eight of hearts was high and low and yuh win the game with dat, there is a feeling of sheer euphoria because you had no idea that with such crap in your hand, you could possibly win.
Wow!! What a sense of accomplishment. Well, on May 8, 2010 at the Angostura compound in Laventille, the Eight of Hearts, concert that is, turned out to be high, low, jack and game.
 To begin with, I have attended a number of steelband events/concerts in Trinidad and cannot recall having gone to a concert that started on time. Emcee Jemma Jordan was on stage even before 7:00 pm to get the show on the road. I was very impressed with Michael Cooper’s leadership. From the very first note by Solo Harmonites to the shoot out between Silver Stars and Phase II,  the Eight of Hearts concert was musically fulfilling.
Earlier that day, I was fortunate to have been a presenter at a Pan Trinbago symposium on the criteria for judging. Later, at Angostura, I was wishing that all of the adjudicators                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       at the symposium could have been at the concert-as a cohort-to see a manifestation of all the performance nuances discussed during the symposium.  For the first time in about twenty years, I was able to sit and listen to steelband performances under non-competitive conditions, displaying the enormous talent and musicianship from a group with little or no formal musical training, but who epitomize the very best of what can be produced from the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. 
Since this was my first Eight of Hearts Concert, I had arrived early, eager  to take in every bar of music.  A full forty-five minutes before the start, bands one and two-Solo Harmonites and Desperadoes- were in position to play.  Each band’s performance offered a unique characteristic.  For Solo Harmonites, the front line players, especially the pannist who opened the concert with the National Anthem, seemed to be having such a great time.  For me, this is what makes a performance a performance. Solo played eight selections tinged with the expert tenor saxophone work of Anthony Woodruffe. The balance achieved between the band and the saxophonist was just right for Love Theme, and I was impressed with Woodruffe’s improvisational skills.  Solo ended their set with Unknown Band which set the stage for the band from the hill.
Despers was classic in every way when the spotlight turned to them. Impeccably dressed and exhibiting a high level of panmanship with excellent cohesiveness in terms of execution on the instruments-they were able to live up to the phenomenal support on the hill and elsewhere.  I was very impressed with Despers’ programme which included a wonderfully executed arrangement of Pan In A Minor.   For the first two numbers, my ear picked up a keyboard in the ensemble- unusual in a steelband ensemble- prompting me to stand up and investigate.  Indeed, there was Carlton Alexander, playing a keyboard in the ensemble, an innovative initiative for which Despers should be given credit.  Throughout the band’s performance, Carlton’s strategic placement of voicings contributed to a very special sound. 

His ability to find the spaces within the large number of percussive instruments in the ensemble was a testament to his musicianship.   Night is Tunisia was special. I have often found that when steelbands play jazz, there is always a tendency not to get the feel right because it is almost impossible to have two bass players feeling and executing a swing bass line exactly the same way. Despers’ interpretation of Night In Tunisia was on point, and I enjoyed their performance. Choosing Bradley’s classic arrangement of Ordinary People as the penultimate selection was the perfect buildup to what was a wonderfully programmed set.  Having had the curtains pulled from the first band’s performance and a fresh band on stage, it was time for Skiffle Bunch.
There has always been a thing about South bands with regard to whether they are at the same level of musicality with the North bands.  Well, for anyone who was at the Eight of Hearts concert, I hope that debate has been put to rest.  Again, I must draw attention to the programming of each band’s performance. 
For the readers who might want to get an insight to the references I make about programming, it simply has to do with the ordering of selections in such a way as to keep the listener’s attention, from the first selection through to the last.  And so it was with Skiffle Bunch, the first of their six selections keeping the listener’s ear tuned to the sounds of the band.
The highlight of Skiffle Bunch’s performance for me, though, was The Greatest Love sung by Turon Roberts-Nicholas. I found the balance-in terms of accompaniment of a vocalist-to be superb, and Turon’s voice a perfect fit for the ensemble.  Their rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia was well executed; it would have been nice to have also heard Turon’s rendition of that classic, but that was not to be.  Skiffle Bunch ended their performance with Pan On Fire which set the stage for one of the Woodbrook bands.
It was interesting to see the differences in the number of tunes chosen by each band to complete their set at the concert.   Invaders chose to do five selections and featured one of the best pannists Trinidad has to offer-well-there were two pan soloists on Invaders’ set.  Earl Brooks, who was not too long ago an arranger for Invaders, was featured on the selection What’s Going On.

Although Earl has been on the scene for a while, I must admit that I have not had much of an opportunity to hear him play.  I am not sure who did the arrangement, but it was tailor-made for Earl’s skills.  The other soloist on Invaders’ set was Arddin Herbert.  Readers of this edition of the T&T Review can read the interview I did with Arddin in February in which he talked about Len “Boogsie” Sharpe’s influence on him as an arranger.  What I discovered though-and I am sure Arddin is aware of this-is that “Boogsie” also influenced his approach to playing the double second. Arddin’s solo playing of the Gershwin classic Summertime before the band came in had all the elements of an enhanced “Boogsie” approach to the tune.  I mention this because Arddin had spoken about the great composers learning from each other.  Invaders ended their set with what can be termed their classis arrangement of Say Say which paved the way for the band from Charlotte Street, Renegades.
Disclosure: In 2006, I was given the opportunity to drill BP Renegades for the carnival season, so I am a proud member of Renegades. Affiliation apart, I must say that despite all the music played before Renegades’ performance-their rendition of Mas Que Nada somehow set a tone for people wanting to dance.  At least, that is how I felt.  The song, which gained its prominence after Sérgio Mendes’ version in the ’60s, was an excellent choice for the first of six selections. 
A splash of reggae-I believe the only for the night-was provided in the Marley classic, No Woman No Cry and Renegades proved that they are well deserving of their place among the best of the best in Trinidad.  TheFor me, the highlight of Renegades’ performance came when vocalist Renee Solomon graced the stage to sing The Prayer accompanied by the band.
I was fortunate to have had some interaction with Renee-and her mother-five or six years ago before she left Trinidad to study abroad.  It was just a delight to hear her in that setting.  Renee has matured into a class act, and while the performances she does in Trinidad will bring her a certain amount of musical satisfaction, I honestly believe that exploring the vast number of opportunities in cities of North America and Europe will be more beneficial.
In my opinion, many of the steelbands in Trinidad have a tremendous amount to learn from All Stars in terms of performance protocol.  Jerry Jemmot left an indelible mark on All Stars in terms of performance, and when you couple that with the repertoire in their arsenal, it is a difficult act to beat.  Earlier on I used the metaphor of an All Fours game to talk about the concert and referred to each band’s performance as high, low, jack and game.  Well, as far as All Stars was concerned, you have to add a hang jack to the mix-in spite of the fact that eight of hearts is high.  Virtually impossible-but I think you know what I mean. 
All Stars played two medleys-one which had vocalist Sheldon Reid mixing it up with the patrons. In addition to having an excellent voice, Sheldon really knows how to interact with patrons.  He diplomatically found the most beautiful women in the audience to croon songs like Help Me Make It Through The Night, Can’t Live Without You, and Let It Be Me and before that, the band played J. S. Bach’s, Air On A G String.
This particular piece had all the nuances that All Stars is famous for, and on this night, the band did not disappoint.  While I am sure that most people were tapping their feet while they sat and listened to all the bands before All Stars, it would be fair to say that it took this long for people to actually leave their seats and form a bit of a dance floor in front of the band as they played what may be termed the anthem of calypso arrangements in Trinidad-Woman On The Bass. For me, it does not matter how many times I have heard this arrangement or rendition of Woman On The Bass, it sounds fresh every time.
The last two bands, Phase II Pan Groove and Silver Stars had much shorter sets than all the previous band because of an expected shoot out between them at the end of the concert. I should mention two elements of this concert:  The first was that I thought the order in which the bands appeared was strategic which made for an entertaining evening of music.  The other was the organization or transition from band to band.  Going back to the first two bands that played, while Desperadoes was playing, Solo Harmonites had to move their instruments off stage and Skiffle Bunch had to bring theirs on stage.  I thought that this was executed in a very professional manner, and again credit is due to Michael Cooper and his team for the accomplished vision for this concert.  There were absolutely no distractions throughout the night.
Phase II’s set included Bésame Mucho, Hello, Summertime and Lovers After All.   Two of these selections featured Marilyn Williams on vocals and I guess “Boogsie” held back on his programming for the shoot out. 
Marilyn’s contralto voice was well suited for Phase II which provided excellent accompaniment.  It certainly takes quite a bit of discipline to play softly when ninety percent of the time the instrument or instruments are played at a fortissimo level. Since I am accustomed to seeing Phase II in a Panorama format, it was good to see and hear “Boogsie ” playing with his band, and prior to the first tune on the set, he conducted what must have been a special arrangement of a Mother’s Day song dedicated to mothers. He is indeed a special dude as far as pan is concerned, and probably has a repertoire of tunes on his sticks like nobody else.
Silver Stars played three selections, How Many More Must Die, Bohemian Rhapsody and I’m Alive, a version that featured Denise Plummer. 
Here again, Edwin Pouchet held back on the choice of his selections for the shoot out. There has been copious chatter about Silver Stars’ ascension to one of the top bands on the island-especially since winning Panorama for two years consecutively. When all the effusiveness has been properly analyzed and codified, I believe the band’s performance at the concert proved that they are worthy of all the accolades.  Pouchet’s arranging skills has done a lot to propel the band to the level they have achieved.
The shoot out started with Phase II playing Magic Drum, “Boogsie’s” composition from 2009 while Silver Stars countered with Black Eyed Peas’ I Got A Feeling. 
Phase II came back with Pan Army and Silver Stars played their instrumental version of I’m Alive. These selections brought to a close what was a fantastic evening of music coming from the National Instrument, and I must thank Pan Trinbago for scheduling the symposium on the same day that the Eight of Hearts concert was scheduled.  Had it not been for the symposium, I would not have been in Trinidad and therefore would have missed a truly exciting evening of pan.

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