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In a flowing white tunic, the band leader takes up his mallets nimbly like a new appendage. With a subtle four count, his hands maneuver in quick jumps around the concave surface of his steel pan while the band follows with what sounds like a jazzy calypso tune. The plinky crash from the polished steel teases the ear like an easy tropical wave.
Suddenly the pan veers off into foreign territory, careening like a future-age jet into the stratosphere and twisting the easy triad into the seconds and fifths (sevenths and ninths) of a postbop jazz riff. Sylvano Monosterios pounds out mind-boggling deconstructions on the piano. The fleet-fingered Mickey Orta on bass and Larry Marshall on drums hold on for dear life. Mouths fall agape and necks crane to watch the musician spin the mallets round the inside of the drum like a mad chef whipping up a magic stew. The crowd now looks like a Picasso rendering; the ocean scene melts into a Kandinsky.
It's normal to be nonplussed when hearing jazz steel-pan player Othello Molineaux for the first time. But the eye-popping is nothing new for the Trinidadian-born Molineaux, who moved to Miami in 1971 and quickly established himself in the then-burgeoning South Florida jazz scene. "There was a lot of that here in Miami," says Molineaux of the initial incredulous reactions. "Even Jaco [Pastorius], the whole jazz scene in Miami, they were dumbfounded because it was something they'd never heard yet."
Molineaux was the first steel pan player featured on a jazz recording. Well before that he formed one of the first steel bands of middle-class kids in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in the mid-Fifties, not long after the instrument's invention on the island during World War II. "Middle-class, upper-middle-class people were not allowed to indulge in it because it was coming out of the ghetto," says Molineaux from his home in South Miami. "There was a violence connected with the bands, and that's why parents sort of kept their kids away from it. I mean, the kids would've been scared themselves because they were all big men, all really violent -- clashes, fights, murders, that sort of stuff. So it wasn't socially acceptable."
Coming from a family of musicians, however, Molineaux was able to indulge his fascination. "By about fifteen I had my own band, which was revolutionary at that time, so I sort of bridged that gap between the middle class and [the ghetto].
"I had to convince my contemporaries it was cool, you know. And after that, when that was accomplished, I went back to playing the piano," he adds with a laugh.
Molineaux did not return to the pan until he left Trinidad. Upon bringing the pan to the mainland, Molineaux felt he had to give up the piano to pick up on the intricacies of playing jazz on an instrument that has no logical progression. (The pan is only now being standardized.) "To actually show the players how it should be approached, it became so fascinating. I had to unthink convention," laughs Molineaux. "I listened to everybody -- saxophone players, piano players, [John] Coltrane, Miles [Davis], even vibes, but the fact is you have to create your own rules. I mean, everybody's chromatic, even the harmonica, he's chromatic. But my second octave's in a different position than my first, so all those things don't apply. So really, you have to create your own rules."
Once he mastered it, Molineaux introduced the instrument into his work with some of the greats in contemporary jazz: Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Toots Thielemans, Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Joe Zawinul, Jack Dejohnette, J.J. Johnson, Randy Brecker, and full collaborations on albums with Monty Alexander and Ahmad Jamal.
But the musician who has meant more to Molineaux, both professionally and personally, is the late Jaco Pastorius. Molineaux met the legendary bassist at his first audition, in a club where Pastorius was playing with Ira Sullivan. "He was blown away," remembers Molineaux, "because he'd worked on cruise ships, but he'd never heard the steel drums do anything like that. His son was born that same day, and he thought it was some omen from the universe, and we became very close."
Molineaux recalls the time before the troubled genius's life took a tragic turn. "Initially he was really straight, a hard worker, very pure," says Molineaux, "He would come and wake me up at 6:00 a.m. and say he'd practiced two hours already. He really had a romance for life and romance for music, and a focus that was incredible."
Pastorius was so taken with Molineaux's playing that he included the steel pan on his eponymous solo album from 1976. The song "Opus Pocus" is thought to be the first recording of a jazz steel pan. Molineaux would later be an integral member of Pastorius's Word of Mouth band. After Word of Mouth,Pastorius's first album with Warner Bros., he began work on Holiday for Pans, a project more Molineaux than Pastorius. "He tried to sell my record as the second record on the contract," says Molineaux, "and they said, “No, that's Othello, that's not you.'"