Music Review: Steelband Spectacular

While mostly dismissed by the steelpan purists, its evocative liquid sound, stellar production, and broad repertoire sets Steelband Spectacular (1966) apart when it comes to steelband albums. It is also notable for being one of the first steelband albums on an American major label.  It was produced by John Simon, who at the time was a young upstart at Columbia Records and was making a name for himself by producing Top 40 pop hits and albums by the Cyrkle. The Sunjet Serenaders Steelband, New York-based Trinidadian and Tobagonian American pannists, are still somewhat of a mystery in the mostly murky world of mid-sixties steelpan music. Well-chosen song selection, sequencing, arrangements, and production coincide to make for repeat listening, which is an exception in the world of steel pan recordings.

The album features contemporary standards of the time such as “Summertime” and “A Taste of Honey” which continue to stand out because of their endurance factor and major melodies. Even the West Side Story songs (“Tonight,” “Maria”) maintain their sway despite the recent release of a disappointing remake of the musical. While standards, movie themes, and show tunes might have been the Sunjet Serenaders’ particular strong suit, they also ventured out to incorporate vibrant Latin sounds such as “Piel Canela” by Puerto Rican composer Bobby Capo and the Latin Jazz evergreen “Poinciana.” For the most part, they are successful with renditions of classical pieces like Chopin’s “Polonaise,” which takes a brief detour through a Cubop passage; however, “Artist’s Life” by Strauss does come across as slightly shallow and touristy.  The aforementioned John Simon co-wrote one of the album’s original gems, “Sun Dance,” which radiates with melody and rhythmic energy along with flares of the slightly abstract variety. Their mostly uptempo sound is marked by a propulsive percussion, which could have been the influence of the ensemble frequently playing at numerous festivals and marching at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. This polyrhythmic percussion also helps seal bottom-end sound leakage, while providing forward momentum. Not only should this recording be acknowledged for its distinction of being one of the first American major label steelpan recordings, but it should also be recognized as a brightly layered and extremely listenable album that is still floating around out there. - Ted (Downtown)

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