Carlo Mombelli quartet: playing like angels; facing demons

Carlo Mombelli’s most memorable works have often been his most personal. Think of the Mombelli number most South African jazz fans know best, in one version or another: Me, the Mango Picker ( ). That song embodies an intensely personal moment: when the pull of returning to an uncertain home from a successful career as bassist, teacher and composer in Germany suddenly became overwhelming.

Since then, it’s been hard to shut his music in a single box. The jazz label fitted perfectly when he was working with the late John Fourie and Duku Makasi in the early 1980s, but he was only in his 20s back then. Since those years, there have been partnerships with Lee Konitz and Barbara Dennerlein on the jazz side, and Egberto Gismonti on the similarly unclassifiable side; explorations of abstract and processed sounds, and of traditional percussion (with Tlale Makhene) and vocalese (with Mbuso Khoza); music that is formally composed – including film scores – music that is wholly improvised in the moment, and music combining elements of both.

Gina Nelson’s cover art

But every album has held reflections on the personal, and the bassist’s latest, Angels and Demons (on digital platforms, and available on vinyl here: ), may be his most personal to date. It has emerged from his sabbatical year (he currently teaches at Wits), which has seen him reconnect, after a long time, with the father who left South Africa early in Mombelli’s childhood. One number, In the End We All Belong – a gentle ebb and flow of sounds with the feel of a string adagio – is dedicated to that father, Angelico Francesco Mombelli. Another, A Mouse in a Maze, evokes the circumscribed life-choices of another family member in the turbulent childhood that ensued.

Angels and Demons mixes work with the current quartet (pianist Kyle Shepherd, guitarist Keenan Ahrends and drummer Jonno Sweetman) processed sounds, and guest appearances from pianist Peter Cartwright and others, including vocalist/saxophonist daughter Maria. (It’s a family affair: Mombelli’s other daughter, Gina Nelson, created the perceptive pen-and-ink portrait on the cover.)

The reflections aren’t only inward-looking. Children of Aleppo is dedicated to “children everywhere who have suffered and lost their lives through the hunger for power, and greed, of those meant to protect them” – those ruthless exploiters are among the album’s demons.  On that track, Cartwright’s sombre processional piano is haunted by processed sounds like the echoes of cries. It isn’t the first time Mombelli has written an explicitly political tune. Ethical Sam’s Cookery School on the 2007 I Stared into My Head  poked bitter fun at the interfering foreign policies of big nations. That one was angry; this one is much, much sadder.

The mood of Angels and Demons is overwhelmingly lyrical and thoughtful, often with unease clawing at the edges: a sabbatical is supposed to be a time for reflection, and the album provides a powerful space to sound that out. Among the angels are Mombelli’s co-players who provide inspired support, with Ahrends and Shepherd doing particularly moving work on Pulses in the Centre of Silence and Athens (which refuses all potential programme-music cliches about that city, and focuses instead on the lived texture of Mombelli’s experience there.)

“I don’t listen to jazz,” somebody at a year-end function the other day told me: “It hurts my ears.” Angels and Demons will never do that. It’s quiet, contemplative music with feelings to the fore. It might just hurt your heart a little – but in a positive way.


Sibu Mash Mashiloane brings the Afrima closer to home

Congratulations to pianist Sibu Mash Mashiloane, who on the evening of 24 November in Accra, Ghana, won the AFRIMA (All-Africa Music) Award for Best Artist, African Jazz for his track Niza, from Mashiloane’s 2017 second album Rotha – A Tribute to Mama ( ). Coincidentally, Mashiloane has recently released his third album, Closer to Home ( ) and will be appearing at Johannesburg’s Orbit this weekend.

Sibu Mash Mashiloane

Mashiloane is currently based at UKZN, where he teaches, gained his masters in jazz performance, and is currently working towards a doctorate on the identity of African jazz. Closer to Home comprises a baker’s dozen of short – sometimes, frustratingly short – tracks, including both originals and tributes to Miles, Coltrane, Winston Mankunku and Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. Although the pianist credits masters such as both Coltrane and Busi Mhlongo as influences, it is of Molelekwa that Mashiloane’s approach most often stirs up memories. He has a similar ear for an appealing theme, and gift for surprising transitions of tempo and texture, as well as an interest in negotiating between tricky traditional rhythms, classic jazz, and modern pop.  And – it should go without saying – he has more than ample keyboard skill to paint this distinctive soundscape.  The reworked Molelekwa Spirit illustrates just how much common ground exists between the two musicians. There’s beautiful support from the album’s co-players, particularly percussion throughout from Tlale Makhene, and on Zwelihle Mawande Kunene’s composition Madosini there’s a gorgeous solo firmly in the Mankunku/Trane tradition from reedman Mthunzi Mvubu.

Mashiloane’s own revisioning of Yakhal’inkomo, which takes it to a bluesy church space, manages to be both refreshing and thought-provoking, and I wished it had lasted longer than four minutes-odd. Mashiloane has his own strong vision for the music; he’s genuinely an original voice, not just an entertaining piano-player. Hopefully, album number four – and there has to be one – will see him relaxing more into longer tracks and leaner arrangements where we get a chance to hear his intriguing tunes breathe, and his intelligent playing really stretch out.cover

Essence of Spring: Ibrahim Khalil Shihab plays inside and outside all the boxes


Jazz musicians are a gloriously democratic mob – but some jazz audiences (Gauteng, I’m looking at you here) and self-appointed critics can be less so. It ought to be enough that the music is rich with improvisation, and infused with African groove or American swing – or very often both.

But no. Large swathes of jazz from the Western Cape in particular risk getting confined in the boxes of pop or dance music when they swing or groove too much, or feature a vocalist out front singing about “lurve”.

The boxes shouldn’t matter, but since they impact coverage, airplay and marketing decisions, they do: that’s how musicians eat.

Ironically, those same Gautengers who act all sniffy when they hit the Cape Town Jazz Festival and encounter improvised music shaped for “jazzing”, still offer respect to Abdullah Ibrahim’s Manenberg – the most perfect piece of bump jive ever written.

But it’s musicians of Ibrahim’s generation, born before South African university music schools opened their doors to Black jazz, who pioneered what the broad church of jazz is really all about. One we don’t hear half enough about is pianist Ibrahim Khalil Shihab, now in his 70s but still making new music.

Shihab’s latest album, Essence of Spring, launches at month-end (available via ) and provides a magnificent lesson in why the genre wars serve nobody except profit-hungry marketers.

Club Normandy, Mankunku and Pacific Express

Seventies strut: Pacific Express

Shihab’s mother composed and played piano in church. At 14, as Chris Schilder, he was featuring at the legendary Club Normandy in Rondebosch; by 15, he had his own group, staffed by his brothers who included the equally legendary pianist Anthony (Tony) Schilder. In 1969, in a new quartet, he released the album Spring, featuring a fiery young saxophonist called Winston Mankunku Ngozi ( ). With Pacific Express during the ‘70s he crafted a series of powerful pop hits, including the prizewinning 1978 Give a Little Love, with vocals by Zayn Adam (here’s the original from scratchy Springbok Radio ). The apartheid SABC erased the video clip of the smash-hit when they realised the band were not Americans, but both “local” and “coloured”.

In 1975 the pianist embraced Islam, adopting the name Ibrahim Khalil Shihab. He played the hotel circuit from Mmabatho, to the Gulf, to Shanghai and back, always composing, constantly exploring and stretching his musical imagination.

Back home, in 1999, he recorded an astounding three-track, 50-minute solo piano outing for Jack van Poll’s October Jazz series ( ). And then he carried on playing, teaching – most recently at the Capetown Music Institute – and writing.

Which brings us to today, when his first album as leader since Spring is released.

It’s been a long half-century.

Essence of Spring reflects on that whole history, opening with a reprise of the 1969 title track. There are covers of three Pacific Express tunes (I Hear Music, Angel of Love and, of course, Give a Little Love), Shihab originals, and some covers of the standards.

Co-producer Ramon Alexander

Co-Producer and fellow pianist Ramon Alexander has chosen to re-arrange (and carry the piano parts on) the three Pacifics tracks: a decision that works out well, since what matters about those is not so much Shihab’s playing as his acute gift for composition. To understand their success, contemporary listeners need to hear them as tunes, not solo vehicles. Alexander’s arrangements don’t repress either their unashamed poppishness (they’re as catchy today as they were back then) or the fact that they are also genuinely interesting for musicians to play; demonstrated by solo work from a predominantly young ensemble including reedman Zeke le Grange, trumpeter Marco Maritz and, on Give.., the flamboyant guitar of Bradley Prince, which perfectly catches and updates that strutting ‘70s vibe.

But it’s the pianism of Shihab I’m here for, and the album never disappoints in that respect.

Tai chi, Trane and the Bo-Kaap

Shihab doesn’t rest on Spring’s Mankunku laurels: this version is fresh, reflecting who he is today, rather than who he was then. The fast dash of Cancerian Moon and the contemplative In Persuance, though, are both tunes that Ngozi, had he lived, would have relished playing: the former swings like the clappers; the latter has that searching, soaring Trane vibe, which le Grange exploits powerfully.

A partnership that ought to go further emerges on In Persuance and Jing’an Park (inspired by the elderly tai chi devotees Shihab observed practising in Shanghai). Guitarist Reza Khota creates solos that are absolutely of today – and so are Shihab’s responses; not just his ideas about where the music should go but the masterful technique that allows him to express them. Pianist and guitarist find so much breathtaking and beautiful common ground that I’d love to hear a duo set just from them.

There’s also a short, brisk piece of classic Cape Jazz, Bo-Kaap, complete with goema rhythms and South Asian chord progressions. This mercurial variety of pace and vibe demands a great deal from the ensemble’s rhythm players, and both the veteran bassist Lionel Beukes and the much younger drummer Annemie Nel (and on one track Pacifics’ veteran Jack Momple) are more than up to the challenge, offering finely textured empathetic support, completely in the mood of each distinctive Shihab original.

at piano
Shihab at CTIJF 2013

And then there are the ‘covers’. If you ever wondered why standards exist, or why jazz players improvise on them, Shihab’s musical imagination explains it all perfectly. His playing pulled me so intensely into the unsuspected landscapes of tunes I thought I knew that I snarled in frustration when the piano medley ended. No problem: Shihab reprises the final tune in that, My Funny Valentine, for seven minutes of final track, with a magisterial contribution from Beukes – the first time we hear the bassist really stretch out.

Genre labels and boxes are the creations of a capitalist music industry that loves blinkered listeners. Shihab just writes and plays very good music indeed, and none of the divisions matter. I wish there had been space for his composition A Glimpse of Tomorrow, which opened his 2013 Cape Town Jazz Festival set…but maybe that’s the title track of the next album…Echoes of Spring launches at the Academia Theatre in Landsdowne on November 23/24 at 7:45pm, with bookings from Quicket. If you’re in the Cape, go to the performance. If not, buy the album. It’s historic in the best sense of that word.

RIP Roy Hargrove


download.jpgSouth Africans will be saddened by the news of the death of trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who’d been a popular visitor at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Hargrove was not only an impressive trumpeter, but somebody who wasn’t afraid to speak out about injustice. He could sound as sweet as his first hero, Clifford Brown, or as tough and edgy as any much younger hip-hop jazzer. For a beautiful playlist tour through his mercurial career, see this:


Hamba Kahle.


Skyjack’s The Hunter: latest episode of a long Swiss/SA musical history

When music scholar Veit Arlt spoke at the SAJE conference earlier this year, his speech was stuffed with memories of all the South Africans who’d played – during their years in exile, and since – on Swiss jazz stages. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that South Africa left its mark on Swiss jazz, or that many South African players – McCoy Mrubata, Afrika Mkhize and more – are still finding fruitful collaborations in what’s often stereotyped as merely a clean, cold, efficient country.

launch-poster_online-use-small.jpgAnother example is Skyjack, set to launch their second album at the Orbit this Friday and Saturday Nov 9 and 10. Comprising Swiss reedman Marc Stucki and trombonist Andreas Tschopp, plus South Africans bassist Shane Cooper, pianist Kyle Shepherd and drummer Kesivan Naidoo, Skyjack have been together for five years now, and their self-titled debut attracted plenty of attention, culminating in a gig at the 2017 Cape Town International Jazz Festival. This 2016 clip gives you some idea of how they sounded around then:

At CTIJF, they presented tracks from the first album plus some new material, including the rhythmically urgent Tschopp composition, The Hunter. Now, that track leads and provides a title for their second album, due for international release from Enja Yellowbird in early 2019. But before that, you can hear the music on Skyjack’s current national tour, which concludes at Joburg’s Orbit on November 9 and 10. Catch them discussing the tour and the band history on this ENCA news clip:

The Hunter is recognisably the same outfit – if you liked that sound, you’ll love this – and, as on the first outing, includes compositions from all the band members. But it’s not just a repeat performance with new tunes. There are still only five players, but the sound is often bigger, bolder and brassier, because of the amount of tight, richly-textured ensemble work. Sometimes, the sound is tougher too. I called Shepherd’s Hunter solo on that Cape Town 2017 stage a twisty forest walk; what he creates on the album (recorded a year later, in March this year) is far harder-edged and bluesier.

One of the mild complaints about the first Skyjack album was how little we heard of Cooper. He’s always such a collaborative, empathetic ensemble player that his distinctive bass sound walks out front too rarely. That’s remedied here, with more tracks offering space for his solos, especially Loom. On that track, his teamwork with Naidoo and conversations with the rest of the group weave sounds that spin away creatively from a starting point somewhere in drum n’bass. You could probably dance to it – if you were a really good dancer free of boundaries.

band image.jpg

All good jazz is a judicious blend of collaborative discipline and unchained imagination, and Skyjack do the mixing well. Shepherd’s Loueke (probably my favourite track) explores the feel of West African music, culminating in an almost kora-like piano break towards the end; embroidered with Naidoo’s intricate rhythm patterns and Tschopp’s work in the trombone’s higher register, where he can sound like a trumpeter. The drummer’s own Time with the Masters is a homage to all the forefather sticksmen who played with, on, inside and outside time – and if that makes them sound like wizards rather than musos, the simile is not unjust.

The album ends with Stucki’s Dayanous: a fast, hard-boppish theme with precise chorus work and solos joyfully flirting with risk. In feel, the tune invokes the kind of music made by the various Europe-based incarnations of the Brotherhood of Breath, some of that in Switzerland too. Not only is The Hunter a compelling album in its own right, it’s also another reminder of how many musicians – from here, and from there; then and right now – have sipped from and been inspired by that heady McGregor/Pukwana/Moholo/ Dyani heritage wine.


Stop press: Nicole Mitchell will be in Cape Town next year

A while back I wrote urging that flautist, composer, teacher and social activist Nicole Mitchell should be a candidate for the jazz roster at the 2019 Cape Town International Jazz Festival  ( ). Well, she and the Black Earth Ensemble will be there. Also part of the latest announcement is UK reed player and composer Nubya Garcia. After two earlier artist announcements dominated by reliably enjoyable but hardly radical musical names, it looks as if the festival is at last getting its innovative jazz chops in order…See the Festival website for full details.

Vuma Levin and Theo Duboule mine the past to interrogate the present

Recordar:  To remember; from the Latin re-cordis, to pass back through the heart”. So runs the opening epigraph to Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces ( ).

That’s the kind of memory guitarist Vuma Levin deals in too. Both his previous albums, the 2015 Spectacle of An-Other ( ) and the 2017 Life and Death on The Other Side of a Dream ( ) drew from South African sonic history – there were spoken texts as well as music – to unpick the complexities and over-determinations of both his own, and the nation’s, identity.

Levin’s third album, In Motion, continues that exploration, but with some intriguing differences from those two. For a start, it’s predominantly a duo album with Swiss guitarist Théo Duboule, though with contributions from trumpeter Marcus Wyatt and Swiss reedman Benedikt Reising (who along with Enoch Marutha will accompany the duo on their SA launch tour, starting on November 8).

Vuma Levin (l) and Theo Duboule (r)

Second – and unsurprisingly, given that – it stars the guitar as, in Levin’s words ( ), “a textural instrument” whose strings may be mediated through digital effects. The duo format, says Levin, permits him “a more intense focus” on sound and texture in both composition and realisation. He’s spoken previously of the influence of Radiohead, and of how Thom Yorke’s approach let him consider “foregrounding the studio as an instrument” ( ).

Neither musician has worked in a duo format before. Levin regularly leads a quintet in the Netherlands, and sometimes here; Lausanne-based Duboule has worked with various groups including the award-winning OGGY and the Phonics. He was also a semi-finalist at the 2016 Montreux Jazz Guitar Competition.

The album comprises seven tracks, two by Duboule and the rest by Levin. The connecting thread is Levin’s three Antique Spoons tracks. Two rest on sampled speech reflections: the first on the politics of memory; the second, in French, on love. The third old spoon is a dense, immersive instrumental construct: guitar lines drawn across thickly textured sound samples like runes incised in clay.

For those who enjoyed Levin’s first two outings (which is most of us who heard them, although the first especially remains difficult to find), the track His Imagined History is a clear bridge between this new work and that, especially the tracks ZAR History Volumes 1&2. We revisit the syncopated handclaps and leg-rattles of historic Khoisan music and the guitar riffs evoking more recent SA styles, but in fragmentary, compressed and allusive forms: this is history rigorously edited and the concision leaves more space for thought. For me, the sonic signifiers posed their questions far more sharply here than on previous outings.

Other tracks range across moods, though if there’s a dominant texture it’s echo – something that itself enacts what the album is about. Duboule’s Lennie’s Cottage starts out meandering and bluesy, then slams us with a harsh overlay somewhere between bottleneck and scratch; Levin’s second Spoon offers gentle melancholy; his Airport Terminal a soaring modernist space. But it’s not just titles like that which reflect the album title of In Motion.

We’re all, as Levin often discusses, moving through time – and since that word has more than one meaning, musicians more than most. Historic music such as that of the Khoisan has travelled through time too: it’s not an antique artefact, but contemporary for those who play it today. The sounds themselves move, as they are modulated and looped by effects. Finally, the two guitarists are in conversation, and that entails a great deal of dynamic movement, as the foreground of the soundscape passes between them.

Those guitar conversations convey warm empathy between In Motion’s principals. Not only are the two both exercising a dazzling level of skill, but it feels like Levin and Duboule relish working together. And it’s impossible for a listener not to be captured by that mood. In Motion is a genuinely enjoyable outing, but not one that softens the intellectual punch of Levin’s sonic bricolage. It’s still sound as incisive post-modern analysis – but then, as film-maker Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.”

Orbit poster.jpg

  • The Levin/Duboule duo launch In Motion (with guests Benedikt Reising and Enoch Marutha) at the Orbit on Nov 8 ( ); Sophiatown Mix on November 9 (011-673-1271); the Roving Bantu Kitchen on Nov 10 ( ), with a Nov 11 concert venue t.b.c.