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.
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.”
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.