by Mark McGowan
Liam Teague and Cliff Alexis will come out “swinging” this week in their life’s mission to prove that the steelpan is about much more than Caribbean cruises.
Under the direction of Teague and Alexis, NIU’s Steelband will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 20, with the NIU Jazz Ensemble. The free and groundbreaking concert will take place in the Duke Ellington Ballroom of the Holmes Student Center.
NIU School of Music alum Sune Borregaard has contributed two original works – “The Blue Pan” and “April” – composed specifically to mix pan with jazz. Borregaard also has arranged “Nardis” by Miles Davis and “Manteca” by Dizzy Gillespie for the combination.
Both groups also will perform traditional pieces alone.
“Cliff and I have always been interested in showing the versatility of the instrument, so we spoke to Ron Carter about the possibility. Working with Ron has been a joy because he understands the language of jazz and can translate that much better to the students,” Teague said.
“We’re also lucky that Sune had written some arrangements for steel pan and big band – there aren’t many out there.”
Carter, director of jazz studies at NIU and conductor of the NIU Jazz Ensemble, said the collaboration “takes both groups outside of what their normal sounds are.”
“We’re getting used to the acoustics of the pan and how it mixes with the jazz band,” said Carter, whose group also is preparing for a Thursday, April 8, ballroom performance with famed jazz drummer Lewis Nash.
“We had to adjust some articulations and certain phrasing: Because of the sound of the acoustic pans themselves, they don’t have as much control over the vibration of the sounds as horn players do. They’re not as vocally precise as wind instruments.”
Although the Steelband mostly will provide accompaniment during the combined pieces, Teague said, the pannists are enjoying the challenge of the different rhythms. There also is room for the Steelband musicians to improvise solos and background sounds.
Carter is intrigued by another characteristic of Booregaard’s charts.
“He studied jazz here. He knows jazz. But he’s from Denmark, which has a whole different concept of the American jazz lanauge, period,” Carter said. “With Liam knowing the Pan language quite well, and me knowing the jazz language quite well, it’s been easy to make them compatible and make it all work.”
“What makes it very exciting for me is that this concert is being streamed online so that the whole world will have a chance to hear this,” Teague said. “This is what the pioneers of this instrument envisioned – getting it out of the whole novelty aspect that many people associate with the steelpan.”