2016 is less than a month old, but is already looking like a good year for South African jazz. Rather than gearing up slowly, as is sometimes the case, clubs have started early with interesting programming (Shabaka Hutchins at Cape Town’s Straight No Chaser last week; Salim Washington at Johannesburg’s Orbit on January 22) and there are already intriguing new album projects on the horizon (Washington’s first SA outing; Tumi Mogorosi with Malcolm Braff, and more…).
After the marathon slog of judging the 2015 National Arts Journalism Awards at the end of last year, though, a question remains. Can enough of the music journalism in this country do such work justice?
Despite excellent Gold and Silver winners, too many of the music stories we judges saw – and there were lot of them – fell into three depressing categories. First were the praise songs crammed with hyperbole: PR, not journalism. Other writers searched out intriguing topics, but were willfully obscure: weighing their commentaries down with abstract jargon or completely neglecting explanatory context – show-off journalism that shut out readers.
The dominant tendency, though, was the opposite of that – writing about the blindingly obvious: the usual suspects interviewed; the usual questions asked; the usual answers never interrogated further. If you’re covering a specialist beat such as music you need to open windows to new soundscapes. Every city and community in this country has musicians – not all of them even young – trying something fresh. They need to be covered on your platforms.
The Cape Town saxophone quartet Saxit!, led by baritone player Gareth Harvey, is one example. Saxophone quartets worldwide have been around since the early 1900s; initially, their repertoire was dominated by adaptations of existing classical and chamber music and specially composed works. The standard format for a sax quartet is SATB (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone instruments) although some groups favour AATB, with two altos. But increasingly, contemporary reed ensembles such as the Rova, 28th Street and Apollo quartets are also exploring repertoire including jazz, pop, world music, and plenty of sounds that defy categories.
That’s probably where Saxit! fits too. Founded in 2011, the current personnel is Harvey, soprano and alto player Joel Benjamin, altoist Jade de Waal and tenor player Simon Bates, and they released their debut EP, the self-titled Saxit! (Octaveleap) late last year (http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/Saxit ) The album includes six tracks and runs for a modest 26 minutes, though you can find more extended live versions of some Saxit! music on YouTube. There’s also a useful video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7vuYIoAPgg which backgrounds both the album and another project, Piero Capra’s soundtrack to Korean graphic artist Erick Oh’s short CGI movie Heart (https://www/youtube.com/watch?v=fAnqcdK8KS0 ).
Three of the tracks are composed by Harvey, others include PeeWee Ellis’s The Chicken and Reza Khota’s Drunken Caravan – live, the group often features more South African repertoire including Mankunku’s That Man There and McCoy Mrubata’s Joburg Mountain.
Modest in scale the release may be, but it’s an engaging and genuinely enjoyable debut, and definitely worth your ears. Capra’s sound engineering provides superb framing – the voice and texture of each reed sings through clear and beautiful. The playing is impressive: precise without being pedantic; empathetic, and infused with the undisguised joy of the players, with intelligent solos from everybody.
Harvey creates good material. There are more catchy hooks than you might expect to find in saxophone quartet territory, and some melodies that pack a real emotional punch, such as the melancholy, mbaqanga-tinged Long Street Groove, which ends up more 2am regrets than midnight revels, intensified by Benjamin’s sweet but definitely not saccharine soprano work. I might have preferred a slightly dirtier-tasting Chicken, but I suspect that one works better live than in a studio, with a dancing audience out front.
It has taken hard work to sound as good as Saxit! does. The same is true for all the other musical innovators working out there that we haven’t encountered yet. Without the sunshine and fresh air of media coverage and gigs, it’s easy for players to get discouraged. A useful New Year resolution for music journalists might be to find and cover at least four new projects this year – it would be good for journalism, and sure as hell good for South African music.