Andy Narell’s journey started not in the West Indies or Africa or Brazil, but rather where they all meet–on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he first heard a steel-pan drum played by an Antiguan immigrant. In the Caribbean, pan bands can engage dozens of players, and Narell’s dad, a social worker, had hired this man to teach local street gangs a group activity that might prove safer than organized crime; his son joined in and quickly outpaced the pack. A few others have incorporated the pan’s shimmery, Mobius-strip timbre into forms other than calypso and soca, but none as explicitly or as expertly as Narell, who’s been expanding the niche for his instrument for 20 years. Calling him the premier jazz pan player seems a backhanded compliment, since there aren’t many to compare him to; more accurately, he’s a lively, swinging soloist who’s managed to transcend the physical limitations of his chosen voice. (Steel pans require no more actual movement than their distant cousin, the marimba, but the small, blunt, rubber-tipped sticks used to hit them–as opposed to the tapered, nicely balanced mallets for the marimba and vibes–don’t lend themselves naturally to the detail work of jazz improvising.) Narell’s particular blend of jazz and Caribbean music, one of the more infectious sounds created in the last quarter century, still serves as the pulse of the Caribbean Jazz Project, which he cofounded in 1995. But since then he’s spent some time in South Africa, where he has an extraordinary following; as a result highlife and township jive have found their way into the mix on his last two discs, Fire in the Engine Room and the double CD Live in South Africa (both on Heads Up). For this concert, he’ll explore ethnic territory he’s yet to assimilate on record, dueting with tabla player Sandip Burman. Wednesday, August 29, 7 PM, Bennett-Gordon Hall, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. Thursday, August 30, 12:30 PM, Borders Books & Music, 150 N. State; 312-606-0750.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mel Lindstrom.