A new composer’s voice takes wing in Flight of Fancy

Increasingly, jazz players are choosing to be the architects of their own fates: creating projects independent of the major studios and releasing either though licensing deals or simply by leveraging the marketing power of social media. Pianist Thandi Ntuli crowd-funded her debut, The Offering; trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni uses a trestle table and a portable card machine to sell copies of Bhekisizwe at every gig where he plays.

That approach has advantages and disadvantages. It frees creative vision, and it’s rare, now, to hear jazz artists complaining about studio producers who demand they must “sound more like so-and-so”. But, sometimes, it takes a while to pull the resources together to make the release happen.

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The latest example is pianist David Cousins’ debut album as leader, Flight of Fancy (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/davidcousins1 ), which has been quite a long time coming. The music was recorded in 2013, but the CD released in December last year and only launched formally last week at Johannesburg’s Orbit club.

The music-making itself was much faster: “We recorded in four days,” says Cousins. “After that, it was a process of editing.” For the final result, Cousins gives credit to his drummer and co-producer Peter Auret. “He’s got amazing musicality,” says Cousin. “He hears the things I don’t hear.” In addition, he’s grateful for the transformations in music production the digital era have brought. “You don’t need a major studio, and often you can trade services with colleagues on a kind of barter basis – ‘I’ll help you with X in return for some studio time for Y.’”

Flight of Fancy has nine tracks: seven originals, and covers of the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ My Friends. The quartet also includes trumpeter Marcus Wyatt, bassist James Sunney and alternating drummers: Auret and Justin Badenhorst. Throughout, the album is flavoured by the easy co-operative mood of four players who enjoy one another’s musical company.

That mix of material reflects the pianist’s own background. Although he studied piano and saxophone at school, and composition and arrangement at UCT, it was music production studies that subsequently took him to Berklee and he’s been working for various Johannesburg production houses – as a freelancer since 2009 – since his return.

His professional focus on many of the more commercial aspects of music has, he says, “filtered back into my approach to jazz.” He has “learned the value of strong hooks”, and those are certainly in evidence on both the covers, and on his own tunes such as African Gospel – whose churchy hook (though not sounding particularly African) is instantly catchy, as well as on the relaxed, bluesy closer, A Little Ditty.

In addition, Cousins’ work as an arranger “has strengthened my interest in longer forms and their relation to jazz.” Record companies used to demand radio-friendly collections of five-minute tracks; Cousins’ album, while neatly contained, stretches out nicely to eight or nine minutes when the music needs it.

It’s hard for him now, Cousins admits, to separate out the influences on his own compositions.

“There’s classical piano, some African music – especially Bheki Mseleku – Afro-Cuban music and pop music. All have filtered into what I write, but it’s hard for me to pick them apart. I leave it to listeners to say: ‘Oh, I can hear that in this..’”

Those listeners, he says, could be “anybody who’s open-minded and interested in contemporary sounds. It is a jazz album but not – much as I love swing – swing all the way.”

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Trumpeter Marcus Wyatt

However he did go through some extensive dissections of the two covers: “In both cases, I chose them because they had the potential to be what I wanted them to be.” Both get quite an extended treatment, with thoughtful solos from bassist Sunney on My Friends, and Wyatt on the Beach Boys’ number. Cousins credits the hornman as another strong influence – “When I heard him at UCT he was an inspiration” – but Wyatt steps aside for the classically-flavoured Last Days of the Emperor, where we hear a very strong statement of who Cousins is as pianist and composer.

And while the media still get most excited about grand-scale releases from whoever is currently the biggest or most fashionable name, it’s these smaller excursions, with quality playing and new composers’ visions on show that actually mean more in terms of building South Africa’s jazz voice for the future.

 

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Andreas Loven’s District Six conjures up the bittersweet magic of Cape Town

The image of Cape Town and its music is very different from the reality.

The image is infested by a myriad stereotypes constantly recurring on postcards and album covers: merry, gap-toothed klopse players with banjos stepping out to a goema beat; the mountain and the sea; the giant, seminal shadows of Abdullah Ibrahim at the keyboard and Basil Coetzee on sax; the call to prayer; the tragic clearance of District Six; the brightly-painted plasterwork of the Bo-Kaap.

The reality encompasses all these, but a great deal more as well. The Western Cape coast was an ancient place of Khoisan settlement, central to the spirituality of those communities before ever the Cape Coast was on the horizon for European colonisers. The first full shipment of slaves offloaded at the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company in 1658 comprised 174 captives from Angola. Slaves and political prisoners came from Madagascar, Java and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, as well as Mozambicans destined to be shipped onwards to Brazil. Xhosa-speaking peoples were forced westwards by the British during the Third Frontier War. Seaports are by definition cosmopolitan places, but Cape Town’s cosmopolitanism was shaded by tragedy, displacement, and force long before the apartheid authorities razed District Six in 1966.

All those heritages – Asian, Khoisan, Xhosa, West and East African, and European – are reflected in the sounds of the city’s music, along with the ever-present rolling sea, and an emotional legacy that can shift from carnival to sadness as fast as you can spin on a tickey.

image1To create new music which can evoke all (or even some) of that is a challenge for any composer. But it’s the one that Norwegian pianist – but long-time Cape Town resident – Andreas Loven, has taken up in his second album District Six (Losen Records http://www.losenrecords.no/release/andreas-loven ) with a quartet that also includes reedman Buddy Wells, bassist Romy Brauteseth and drummer Clement Benny.

The result is both surprising and successful. Loven writes magically catchy tunes (the opener, Good News, is a positive earworm) that reflect both joy and melancholy. He’s a pianist with more than a little blues in his fingertips who doesn’t try to remind us of any of the classic Cape piano voices: rather, he brings who he is to the music.

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Andreas Loven

We do get one number that offers a full-on goema beat, Inside District Six, but what makes the album most convincing in conjuring up the Cape is something more than that obvious marker of place: it’s the range of sounds and textures we hear on every number. On Roots, Loven reminds us that the piano is a thing of strings and hammers as well as keys and that there are Eastern as well as Western scales. African Piano explores the feel of classic 1970s South African jazz and pan-African multiple patterning. In a spine-chilling moment at the end, Wells’s saxophone harmonics reach back far beyond that history, to the overtone singing of the Xhosa-speaking peoples and the bow music of the Khoi and San.

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l to r: Andreas Loven, Buddy Wells, Clement Benny, Romy Brauteseth

The playing is superb. Each player is thoughtful and empathetic, constantly creating space for the others and the melodies to breathe, and that feeling of clear light and space, perhaps, provides the Northern accent in the music. Benny can lay down a tight goema pattern (Inside District Six) or push an intense melody forward (The Boiler) without ever over-acting the parts: on this outing, nuance and subtlety are his middle names. And Brauteseth gets a lot of room here to demonstrate who she is, with some marvelously solemn and sonorous work on Roots and some solos that sing on both strings and voice. Wells, as usual, judges his contributions perfectly for the mood of the numbers, recalling the emotional power of both Mankunku and Robbie Jansen, filtered through his own contemplative restraint.

“Do you think a Norwegian can play goema?” Loven asked me in correspondence about the album. Well, yes – but more than that, District Six captures the feel and sonic textures of Cape Town in a way that’s both personal to the composer and instantly recognizable to the listener.