When I talked to reedman and composer Khaya Mahlangu a decade ago – the first time in 40 years he had got his hands on a big-band, as director of the Gauteng Jazz Orchestra – he described it as “Like being a kid let loose in a roomful of toys – heaven!” (https://mg.co.za/article/2010-12-10-on-a-stairway-to-heaven/)
If that was merely heaven, last Friday night’s Jazz Giants Legacy Project at the Market Theatre must surely have approached Nirvana. There was Mahlangu directing an 18-piece ensemble; conducting and participating in arrangements of mostly his own works, filmed to create a future video and CD and transcriptions of scores for music learners. What’s more, the triumphant concert caps ten years during which Mahlangu has experienced family tragedy and, five years ago, a stroke that benched him from music for a while.
The Legacy project is helmed by the formidable Ike Phaahla and his organisation Creative Concepts, and funded by the National Lottery Fund. This year’s events (a concert the following night similarly showcased the music of Andile Yenana) were a delayed follow-up to similar events in 2014 for Feya Faku, and Marcus Wyatt and the ZAR Jazz Orchestra. When today’s jazz history in the making largely goes undocumented, and when if it isn’t web content, most people think it doesn’t exist, you can’t put a price on that kind of archival initiative.
Mahlangu was not the only artist showcased on Friday, and it’s inexplicable – and just plain wrong – that the advance publicity did not also herald the powerful, incandescent opening set to come from Thandi Ntuli and her sextet. Drawing from Exiled, Ntuli, with Mthunzi Mvubu on reeds,Sthembiso Bhengu on trumpet, Keenan Ahrends on guitar, Shane Cooper on bass Siphelelo Mazibuko on drums and Mamphumelelo Nhlapo on percussion conjured wounds “resurfacing more potent than before” and the pale “ghosts of our own apartheid…even within the safety of our own homes.” On her 2018 composition, Portal, (not yet recorded) her tribute to the cultural icons who died that year, she lifted the pain with a more upbeat, yearning lyricism.
Ntuli’s technical command of the keys grows on every outing – and it was already impressive on The Offering back in 2014. What was most striking from this set was how masterfully she now stretches across the full palette of sounds: embracing noise that speaks harshness and dissonance as well as upward-spiralling joy.
What was equally striking was how seamless for listeners the transition was between Ntuli’s sonic innovation and the classics of Mahlangu’s retrospective journey in the second set.
South African jazz has always had big, adventurous ears, and what Ntuli does continues, rather than departs from, that tradition. (There’s a literal family connection too: it was the musical patriarch of her family, Selby Ntuli, who recruited Mahlangu for his innovative Afro-soul outfit, Harari back in the mid-‘70s.)
Now 66, Mahlangu’s history is very much the history of South African ‘modern’ jazz. He started as a Boy Scout bugler, then with youth bands and Harari, then a sax chair at the legendary Club Pelican , then – after studies – the Drive, the Jazz Ministers, Spirits Rejoice, Sakhile… We heard much of that in the programme, with dedications to Dick Khoza (who saved the young and not yet very competent saxophonist’s skin at the Pelican), to Gilbert Matthews and George Tyefumani of Spirits, to Feya Faku (whose steadfast encouragement helped Mahlangu regain his muscle memory after the stroke) and more.
There were also compositions from colleague Themba Mkhize and from the Jazz Fantasia of Gideon Nxumalo, whose opus the reedman has researched. The arrangements came from several of his colleagues in the big-band, including a tight, edgy polyphony of brass and reed voices from trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana on Mahlangu’s own Visions, and a lush, balladic version of Spirits Rejoice shaped by bassist Thembinkosi Mavimbela. South African jazz has a sonic language, a recognisable feel, for eulogies. Spirits Rejoice spoke it – but so, earlier, had Ntuli’s Portals.
The joys of having 18 instrumental colours to paint with came into their own on Mahlangu’s Mgiba and the closer, a sprightly piece of Witbank marabi. On those numbers in particular, a big, rude, blarty line of ‘bones led by veteran Dan Selsick, plus Mongezi Conjwa’s sprightly, Soul Brothers-style keyboards made us regret that the Market really isn’t a space you can dance in.
And what else did we learn from the evening?
- That pop-up gigs in random venues are all very nice, but to really appreciate the music, nothing beats a space with decent acoustics, a real piano and comfortable stage space.
- That ‘old’ music, innovatively arranged, tightly played and imaginatively improvised, always sounds fresh and beautiful.
- That Mahlangu’s sax voice remains as warm and honeyed as ever. It’s still a sound to fall in love with – but, wait a minute, the man can also sing! He surprised many listeners with a sophisticated set of vocals on Some Kinda Blues, somewhere between Al Jarreau’s smoothness and Jon Hendricks’ syncopated scatting.
- That there are a remarkable number of accomplished but less-known voices on the Joburg scene right now that, without a regular jazz stage, we hardly hear. Those included flugelhorn player Ndabo Zulu, and reedmen Simon Manana and Thabo Masilela – that second pulling out a big, impassioned attack reminiscent of Dudu Pukwana.
- Oh, and that in probably the most cash-strapped weekend of the year, mid-Januworry, good jazz can still put a very respectable few hundred people into the John Kani auditorium.
Why should we have to wait for the July Jazz season for the Market to do this kind of thing again? Couldn’t we have it once a month?