With his latest album climbing the charts, Internationally renowned Jazz pannist Leon Foster Thomas is out to prove that he
belongs in the conversation with other steelpan greats. Born in San Fernando, Trinidad in 1981, Thomas powerhouse sound captures a sound most often heard with natives pan players like Len “Boogsie” Sharpe. But besides his playing style, what sets him apart from others is he excels on any instrument he touches, known for his drumming, which took Phase II Pan Groove to a win at Panorama Finals and has since made several more appearances in that role. He is also an accomplished composer and arranger, performing and winning many solo competitions, touring with his Jazz ensemble and arranging for bands in different competitions, including Crossfire Steel Orchestra in the New York Panorama. Recently, we reached out to Thomas to learn more about his achievements, main focus and future goals with the steelpan.
What was your first exposure to pan and how did you first get involved with the instrument?
“I was born in San Fernando, Trinidad and pan, being the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, is everywhere. My father played with Free French Steel Orchestra. My uncle, eldest brother and sister played with Fonclaire Steel Orchestra and I had a cousin that played with Kalamo Kings Steel Orchestra. My first involvement with the instrument came in the year 1993. My good friend Roger Charles invited me to play African Drums with Pleasantville Senior Comprehensive School Steel Band for the school’s steel band music festival. I can’t thank him enough.”
What made you decide to make it your primary instrument?
“I honestly can’t say. It just happened naturally.”
What kind of scholarship did you receive to attend Florida Memorial University? What was your goal in college, both with your undergrad and graduate degrees?
“I was awarded a partial music scholarship to attend Florida Memorial University. As for my goals, I’ve always heard that “Education is Key”. So my goals have always been to pursue and achieve the best education possible to be successful in life.”
How would you describe your musical style?
“Fresh, new, different. I hope it continues to evolve.”
Who are your biggest influences?
“My parents, my family, Melton Mustafa, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Ken “Professor” Philmore, Robert Greenidge, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and Joshua Redman, to name a few.”
What has been your biggest achievement so far in your career?
“It’s hard to pinpoint just one. There are a few: winning the World Steelband Music Festival soloist competition in 2002, and the duet category in 2004; winning Panoramas with Phase II; releasing two albums, soon to be three; recording and performing with some of the greatest artists around and traveling to different parts of the world.”
What are your career goals as a composer, arranger and pannist?
“To be the best there is possible.”
In 2015, you arranged for Katzenjammers Steel Orchestra, placing fifth in the Medium category in the Trinidad Panorama. Do you hope to arrange for Trinidad Panorama again? If so, do you have a preferred band or are you open to any possibility?
“In the future, my preferred band would be an organization that offers the best environment to be successful. I am not in any rush, though. When the right situation comes we’ll see.”
How did you end up drumming for Phase II Pan Groove?
“I started playing for ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe’s jazz band when I was around 19 years old, before I left for college. In 2005, I was fortunate to get the call to be the drummer for the band, in what turned out to be a very successful season: winning the Panorama with Trini Gone Wild by 20 points.”
You have released two albums, one in 2010 and another in 2012. What kind of response did you receive for each and what did the response mean to you as an artist?
“The responses for both albums were great. It meant that we were on the right track.”
What were your goals with those albums?
“To create quality music.”
What is the name of your latest release and what do you hope to achieve with the album? What is the theme of the album?
“The name of the album is Metamorphosis, which tells of my transformation, from one stage to another. My hope is for the album to be successful and for it to be received well.”
What advice would you give to young musicians seeking to make a name for themselves in the steelpan medium?
“Keep working hard, stay goal oriented and never be easily swayed by your own hype.”
How can others in the art form help transform it into a larger force in music?
“Being unified as one body, supporting each other and the art form 100 percent. Keep pushing.”
Leon Foster Thomas’ latest album, “Metamorphosis,” is available on iTunes.