Steel Pan Star Debuts New Album at Pre-Release Concert
The new album from steel pan star Leon Foster Thomas won’t come out officially until next month. But he’s playing a pre-release concert on Saturday, May 21 at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, and attendees can grab their copies early. With a band including legendary percussionist Sammy Figueroa and John Daversa of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Thomas, who performs around the world, will introduce his third album as a leader, called Metamorphosis.
His previous recording, in 2012, was all about his baby daughter. This time he focused on his own development. The last release, Brand New Mischief, featured Thomas with just a trio; you may have heard selections from it featured on NPR public radio, or here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMXVWYUUYac). On Metamorphosis, which drops June 3, he also brings trumpet, saxophone, flute and more to the party.
“I’m trying to use everything that I’ve learned in school and from everyone I’ve been working with,” he said.
Like the steel pan, Thomas was born in Trinidad. His father played African drums and guitar, served as a choir director and choreographer, and played pan as well. His mother was a singer. “There was music everywhere,” he recalled.
Thomas began to play pan in earnest as a youngster, ultimately becoming an award-winning performer, composer and arranger. He took solo and duet titles in Trinidad’s World Steelband Music Festival in 2002 and 2004, for example. His arrangements for Miami Pan Symphony Steel Orchestra won the 2005 and 2006 Miami Carnival Bomb Competitions and Miami’s 2009 Panorama Competition.
But Thomas works in many genres, including jazz.
In the pan yards of Trinidad, he learned from improvising musicians. So he had the skill but lacked in-depth knowledge about improvised music when he arrived with a scholarship to study at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens, under trumpet and big band ace Melton Mustafa.
“I didn’t even know who Miles Davis was,” he said. Then he was given a copy of Davis’s classic album Kind of Blue. “Everything just opened up from there,” Thomas said. “I literally wore it out.”
The lone cover tune on Metamorphosis may surprise some: it’s Procol Harum’s 1960s standard, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” “That’s one of my favorite tunes ever,” Thomas said, explaining that he came to love it when he played an arrangement by steel pan legend Len “Boogsie” Sharpe for a band called Invaders.
Though Thomas uses this new album to show how he has grown, longtime fans shouldn’t fret that he’s too greatly changed. “You can tell within the phrasing I haven’t lost my accent, musically,” he said.
Leon Foster Thomas performs on Saturday, May 21, at 8:30 p.m., South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211 St., Cutler Bay. Tickets are $25 advance, $30 day of show, smdcac.org/events/leon-foster-thomas, 786-573-5300.