“We can’t be stuck in 16th century harmony mindset and judging 21st century music. Therefore, each person needs to be honest with themselves as far as this is concerned, do what is best for our art form and not only for the paycheck.” —Leon “Foster” Thomas, When Steel Talks Panorama 2012
Leon Foster Thomas grew up around music and the arts. His father made sure of it. The steel pan drummer puts his San Fernando, Trinidad roots into the jazz he plays, to produce a lively new fusion.
Well-known throughout Trinidad and Tobago, where steel pan is king, Thomas has racked up an impressive array of awards. He took the World Steelband Music Festival Soloist and Duet categories, received the Florida Memorial University Visual and Performing Arts “Most Outstanding Student” award, and dominated Trinidad and Tobago’s National Panorama as a drummer in the bands Phase II Pan Groove and Courts Sound Specialists of Laventille. As an arranger, he took the Miami Pan Symphony Steel Orchestra to the top of the Bomb Competition in 2005 and 2006’s Miami Carnival, and the 2009 Miami Panorama Competition.
The man who took easily to drumming at the age of three, and can play any style, also has worked with some names in the business, including Dolly Parton, Cyril Neville, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Carlton “Zander” Alexander, Slinger Francisco “Mighty Sparrow,” and Richard Smallwood.
At Florida Memorial University, Thomas founded Sweet Tuesdays, an excuse to have a weekly jazz jam. He and Professor Nicole Yarling opened up Sweet Tuesdays to high-caliber musicians the likes of Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, Lou Donaldson, Ken “Professor” Philmore, and the college's own Melton Mustafa.
“Brand New Mischief” is a recent creation by a man who can maintain the authenticity of the pan steel drum without missing a jazz beat. It’s a transcendent follow-up to his 2010 solo album, “What You Don’t Know.”
The 2012 album was a creation of love, inspired by the birth of his daughter Annecy. “I was so excited when I heard the news that we (Jaime and I) were having a baby and it triggered emotions that are best described through each song on this album.”
Thomas chose his band well: pianist Allen C. Paul, bassist Kurt Hengstebeck, and drummer Ludwig Alfonso. They neither detract from or limit the steel panorama jazz that exists in Thomas’ expansive, poetic vision. Every element is in its proper place, the drummer signs off his pronounced beats in statuesque, harmonic form, the pianist springs forth his own flurry of like-minded emotions, and the bassist shadows and punches the ebb and flow naturally.
“Soul Window” completely encompasses the vibe of Trinidad island living, the home Thomas remembers fondly. But with notes of heavy starched thinking man’s smooth jazz (a softer Yellowjackets). Every instrumentalist on the opening piece is firing on all cylinders, especially the steel pan master. Melody everywhere, piano holding down a striation of circular jazz wanting to ride the tension between old school straight ahead and new age modern. And Thomas rippling his steel pan in canyon echoes between the cross beats.
There are times when Leon Foster Thomas plays his steel pan like Gary Burton on vibes, as in “Amour Bleu.” Or when he mirrors the sound effects of a strident, high-stepping piano and bass in “Sleepless Nights.” “Annecy” is pure beauty, capturing the singular hope, wonder, and joy that is the birth of a child, touching on ornamental elements of classical music, in a steel pan-centered musical. While “Baby Powder” is reminiscent of the 1960s when Brazilian breeze held sway in every household.
This is an artist who deserves greater airplay. His gift is an ability to bring forth any style with abandon, and play his steel pan as if it belonged in jazz all along.