“That last number,” announced bassist William Parker on the final night of the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, “was called RDP. They took me somewhere on Thursday and I saw some of those houses…Freedom is one thing, but power – economic power – is still coming. We’re all together in that fight: keep fighting and never get complacent.”
Make that kind of statement from the stage at a community concert and a South African crowd would return it in bushels, particularly from a visitor showing heartfelt solidarity. In the enclosed fortress of the Sandton Convention Centre? Not so much. A smallnyana whoop of encouragement here; some scattered, though decent-sized, pockets of applause there. Mostly silence. The moment was emblematic of the event.
But more about the music later.
Housekeeping first. The organisers seem to have learned at least some of the lessons of JoJ 2014: the first at the Sandton venue. Signage has been vastly improved. Together with slightly more sensible grouping of acts to minimize movement between stages, this reduced the potentially dangerous log-jams around escalators we suffered last year. The dovetailing of development bands and main acts minimized sound leakage – although those bands still had no listing in the programme: continuing disrespect, undeserved by hard-working young musicians.
More could still be done about timetabling: some placements made no sense at all, such as Steve Dyer’s superb Confluence set overlapping with Nduduzo Makhathini, with whom Dyer could well share an audience (likewise Hugh Masekela and Ray Phiri, and Matthew Halsall and Trilok Gurtu). Timekeeping, markedly tight last year, slipped badly on Friday night this year, though less so on Saturday.
Sound quality on the Conga stage was excellent, but patchy elsewhere. There were odd, unfortunate mic failures, and no-one has yet worked out a way to eliminate the harsh, glassy acoustics around the Mbira stage. However, lighting on Conga was unpleasant. Apart from the obligatory, unnecessary, smoke machine, a blinding spotlight was regularly aimed outwards at the crowd: distracting for every watcher, and genuinely hazardous for epileptics. All around me on Saturday, people were wincing and shading their eyes.
The printed programme was free, and that was the right price for it. It was merely a collation of PR puffery first generated months ago, and lacked the most essential information any jazz fan seeks: a correct and updated list of personnel – every player in every ensemble.
As for the music, a multi-stage festival like this offers two alternative listening strategies. You can hop around like a rabbit on speed, grabbing a fragment of melody here and a closing chorus there. One manic bunny on my row proffered her iPhone as excuse: “Sorry, but I’m blogging.”
Jazz performances, however, are not usually discrete collections of fragments. The artists have planned them: they have a rhythm and sequence to their contents, representing something akin to a narrative arc; texture fluctuates; tension builds and is released. What can the blogger report if she didn’t share that experience?
So dinosaurs like me prefer to listen to complete sets, trusting to an accurate timetable to offer the opportunity for speed-dating some other musical flavours in-between. We’re well aware, though, that what an artist has to say isn’t necessarily represented by one sip.
If anybody was going to sing the prose of Nate Mackay, Dwight Trible would be your man. If Ndikho Xaba was still working, he should have been there, because it was the righteous, radical spirit of the historic Black Arts movement that Trible raised on that stage – and whose spirit of sharing took him on to Matthew Halsall’s stage later for a brief, graceful guest spot. Trible walked onstage wielding an mbira, chanting for peace over arco bass, then seamlessly shifted the trance-like patterns into unapologetic hard swing. Like a sanctified preacher, Trible is a physical vocal presence, crouching, raising his arms in exultation, bending from the waist.
And he has a voice without boundaries. There’s an almost bel canto quality to his falsetto when he sings straight, but he also scats and preaches and isn’t afraid of the occasional primal scream. His tight, empathetic band – they’ve been together for a long time – offered thick processional textures, soaring, meditative flute, inside piano and dazzling African cross-rhythms. It was a performance Papa Legba would have smiled down on, inhabiting as it did the crossroads where Africa meets funk meets faith. Even the (normally cringe-inducing) audience singalong worked: who but the most soul-less listener could grudge invoking the name of John Coltrane?
It’s harder to describe the Trilok Gurtu/Omar Sosa/Paolo Fresu set. Intense, concentrated collaboration wove ribbons of sound together: shimmering wetted bells and cymbals; more inside piano and Fresu’s trumpet carrying reminders of the electric Miles. Gurtu’s drumming remains astounding: sometimes faster than the eye can follow or the mind count. There’s only one way to listen – feel it. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyJjNiJivIk ) Among the moments that stand out were a wordless improvised dialogue in konnakol, the language of Indian drumming, between Sosa and Gurtu; and Gurtu beating rhythms on water – visually striking, and symbolic of the simultaneous force and transience of the musical moment.
And then came William Parker, leading the Raining on the Moon ensemble with another drummer of character, the magisterial Hamid Drake. It was a set dominated by songs (and some dance) from Leena Conquest; shorter versions of some material, foregrounding the melodies and with perhaps less jagged abstraction and fewer edgy shifts than on the 2002 album of the same name. Nonetheless, the set was both powerful and moving. Strong solos came from reedman Rob Brown and trumpeter Lewis Barnes, and tough, thoughtful pianist Eri Yamamoto, but only one really extended solo from Parker himself. The music was clearly about the collective, and had a lot to say. RDP moved through a space of abstract vocal cries over a spiky horn. Parker had visited eTwatwa the previous Thursday and it had clearly made an impression. Tutsi Orphans spoke out against inter-communal violence (“We have to cut that mess out,” growled Parker). To close, Conquest performed Land Song. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18amw49kpQc ) whose lyrics are savagely satirical, and highly relevant to South Africa: “Who made the land? God made the land…Who owns the land? Mister Johnson owns the land…because Mister Johnson is God…”
But, again, much of the audience didn’t seem to appreciate the biting wit. Maybe that wasn’t surprising. Despite definite logistical improvements and extremely interesting programming, Joy of Jazz in Sandton is entrenching itself as a festival firmly aimed at a monied audience. The architecture of the SCC, designed only 15 years ago, still expresses the claustrophobic mind-set of apartheid. The message of the built structure, and the structure of the pricing, are about containing some and keeping others out.
Maybe Parker should have stayed until Wednesday, and played RDP at the Anti-Corruption March. There, he’d have got the solidarity his sentiments deserved.