Andy Narell got his professional start a little earlier than most musicians: He joined the union when he was 10.
And during most of his 25-year career, Narell has been featured on an instrument that's as unusual as his precocious beginnings: the steel pans (synonymous with steel drums). The pans, which produce varying tones and bear such names as "double seconds" and "quadraphonics," are made from the heads of oil barrels that--through a complicated process of hammering, firing and tuning--become melodious instruments.
These days, the protean Narell, who describes his music as "a blend of jazz, Caribbean music and a smattering of other stuff," is not just a steel pan player: He's also a pianist and synthesist; an arranger and composer of everything from jazz/rock tunes to commercials for Apple and Southwestern Bell; a studio musician who's appeared on sound tracks to "48 HRS." and "Cocoon" and LPs with Aretha Franklin and the Manhattan Transfer; a recording engineer and a record producer.
"So if I ever get tired of playing my own stuff, I just take a break and do something else for a while," he quipped during a phone interview from his Bay Area home in Albany. "I like that balance between other projects and my music."
Tonight through Sunday, The 33-year-old leads his quartet--Steve Erquiaga, guitar, Keith Jones, bass and Paul van Wageningen, drums--at Concerts by the Sea in Redondo Beach.
Narell has made five LPs as a leader, including three for his Hip Pocket label and his latest, "The Hammer" (self-produced and released on the new Windham Hill Jazz label). Narell sees his LPs as going from "something that was more spontaneous, more blowing-oriented to something that leans more toward arranging, orchestration and production," he said. "This is more satisfying, as far as recording goes."
"The trend toward orchestrating is also simply the direction the music's taking," he continued. "I've made three trips to Trinidad in the last two years, and playing and listening to what's happening there started me thinking of bigger orchestrations for the steel pans, though still within the context of what I do, which is not (traditional) steel band music."
If Narell's discs are "more controlled," his live performances have a looser flavor. "We take the tunes from the records that work live," he said. "Some we just don't do. The live show is a lot more geared toward the personalities of the people, letting them express themselves. There's a lot of wide-open improvisation."
Narell's becoming a steel pan player was most serendipitous. His father, Murray Narell, was a social worker in New York who was always looking for programs to keep the youths of the Lower East Side interested in positive activities. To this end, Narell gave one of his employees, a man from Antigua named Rupert Sterling, an opportunity to teach steel band music.
"Rupert made a set of pans, started a group and it went over so well that all the kids in the neighborhood, even kids in gangs, wanted to have a band," Narell recalled.
The then 8-year-old Narell, along with his brother, Jeff, then 13, were lucky enough to have their wish become reality. "My brother and I just jumped in, started a band with some friends," Narell said. "At first, it might have been at the PTA, but in a few years, we were working a couple of nights a week."
He's never stopped playing. Even during his years at UC Berkeley--where he enrolled, due to skipping three secondary grades, at age 15 and was a Pre-Med major before deciding he was destined to be a full-time musician--Narell himself taught steel band music through programs set up by the Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation.
Narell began his career as a studio player working with Bay Area synthesist Bernie Krause in the early '70s. "That was a great opportunity," he said. "I learned about everything from engineering to arranging for big band. It started me toward what I do today."
Music isn't just a "continually interesting" profession that makes Narell "happy," it's also his way of "trying to add something to our culture," he said. "People are getting out of the swing of feeling they need to be creative in their lives. We need artists in the culture to have an expression of who we are and where we're going. I'd like to be part of that, a positive thing happening."