Saturday (April 30th) is the Fifth International Jazz Day, celebrated worldwide and with a flagship gala concert hosted by Barack Obama at the White House. If you check the map (http://www.jazzday.com/event-map-2016 ) you’ll see satisfying clusters of jazz-themed events springing up all over the globe, with Latin America particularly well represented.
South Africa is bidding for Johannesburg to host a future International Jazz Day, so it is disappointing to see only three events flagged on the map for here: in Gauteng, Durban and Cape Town (plus more flags in Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and southern African neighbours). That may simply be a consequence of the structure of the map, because Gauteng alone has a healthy half-dozen gigs scheduled: a lecture and a concert in Tshwane on April 27th; three days of activities including an exhibition by Percy Mabandu at the Soweto Lifestyle Centre on April 27-30; with a Picnic in the Park at Mogale City, lectures and album launches – from McCoy Mrubata and Yonela Mnana – at the Market Theatre, and a closing concert with those same two artists at the Orbit ( http://www.theorbit.co.za ), all on April 30th.
In Durban, the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at UKZN will host discussions and performances around the theme of the solidarity that shared jazz appreciation can build – very appropriate, given the proud history the city (and particularly the Rainbow club) was home to during the era of anti-apartheid struggle. Bucking the trend by showcasing international rather than local repertoire, the Crypt in Cape Town hosts a tribute to Louis Armstrong.
This jazz week coincides with the announcement of contenders for the 22nd South African Music Awards. The awards have had a chequered history, particularly for jazz – in part, because neither rigid musical categories nor competition for rankings really reflect the ethos of the genre. Some of that is reflected in this year’s nominee list. However, at least when the overdressed twittering classes gather in Durban in June to see the awards presented, the jazz names – whoever wins – will genuinely represent the kind of music jazz lovers here know, acknowledge and listen to.
Marcus Wyatt and the ZAR Jazz Orchestra have three nominations for One Night in the Sun( https://zarjazzorchestra.bandcamp.com/releases ): for best group, best engineering, and jazz album of the year. The absurdity of categories is illustrated by Wyatt’s competition in that first category, which includes Big Nuz – on what equally relevant criteria could judges compare those two? However, it would be nice to see a big band carry something home. As well as the superb quality of that particular outing, big bands are expensive to support and host, and an award might encourage more sponsorship for such projects in future.
Difficult judging lies ahead in the ‘Best Classical/Instrumental’ category too. Flautist Wouter Kellerman and guitarist Guy Buttery contend there with two classical ensembles, the Cape Consort and the KZN Philharmonic, and with the thoughtful, searching – and, in my book, at least, an affiliate of the broad church of jazz – Heartland from Deep South (Dave Ledbetter and Ronan Skillen.
As for the Best Jazz Album nominees, alongside One Night in the Sun, there’s Nduduzo Makhathini’s Listening to the Groundhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJvB5xhG4Ik (which, if it wins alongside Big Nuz and the KZNPO, will make a host-pleasing KZN trifecta for an event which has spent the past year seeking a hospitable, long-term, new home…). Bassist Benjamin Jephta’s quintet release, the gently evocative Homelandhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0SmUO8VJFo has deservedly received a great deal of radio airplay; trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni’s Amandla Freedom Ensemble Bhekisizwehttps://soundcloud.com/amandlafreedomensemble plays from the writing and arrangement of a fresh, arresting composer’s voice, and pianist Bokani Dyer’s dazzlingly diverse World Musichttp://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bokanidyer2 has spread its reputation wide, currently getting airplay on several US jazz stations, thanks partly to the networking power of Cape Town’s Alljazzradio and Eric Allen. (http://www.alljazzradio.co.za ).
The list comprises most, (though not all) of what’s been on my South African playlist in the past year. I would happily celebrate a victory from any of those named, because whoever wins they have expended more than enough creativity, originality and hard work to deserve it. More to the point this week, the combined playing, band leadership and compositional talent of all these nominees comprises more than enough world-class jazz gold to make an International Jazz Day based in Johannesburg an event to remember.
Jazz was never a pure music. Its roots drew from many sources; its process emphasized sharing, repurposing, and revisioning. That syncretism has always drawn critics: social critics (from Southern segregationists to apartheid ideologues) who equated musical with racial and sexual mingling, and music critics seeking to erect a closed, essentialist, definition of the genre.
South Africa offers a dazzling range of roots and raw materials on which to draw, and nowhere more so than in Cape Town, end-point of sea routes around and across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, with a history criss-crossed by the the journeys of Khoisan and Xhosa peoples, European colonizers, con-men, missionaries and migrants, and African and East Asian slaves.
Those diverse, intersecting histories and the natural sounds of the place – chittering insects in the Karoo; rolling seas at the coast – have all left their stamp on what we call ‘Cape Jazz’. What’s increasingly apparent is how jazz players from all communities are now drawing on all the colours from that sound palette.
Players and venues (such as the Mahogany Room/Straight No Chaser and Tagore’s, both sadly closed within the past month) have defiantly and brilliantly bucked the trend of conservative city-centre spaces catering to tourists with a standard repertoire. Musicians such as Mac McKenzie and the late Robbie Jansen, have re-visioned goema sounds for small ensembles and, in McKenzie’s case, large orchestras. Graduates from UCT have used their international curriculum as a jumping-off point for original music more closely reflecting both roots and new ideas: think Morieira Chonguica or Orlando Venhereque. Drummer Frank Paco, draws on the contemporary pan-Africanism of the city to revisit its neglected African heritage. Pianist and composer Hilton Schilder, combines the roles of musician, historian and social activist to reassert Khoisan music and the modern instrumental ideas that can be derived from it.
Three recent releases from Cape Town illustrate the diversity with which ‘Cape Jazz’ is now transcending its own old definitions.
Paco’s latest outing is with marimba player Bongani Sotshononda and others in an ensemble led by Reunion-based guitarist Jean Pierre Jozéfinn: JAV (Josefinn Austral View) Trapdanza (FATAK fat03). Inside an intriguing puzzle-box of a cover, Trapdanza presents Indian Ocean music: easy, bell-like Reunion guitar, the stop-and-start dance patterns of Madagascar (represented by Andry Randriantseva on keyboards and trombone), as well as Paco and Sotshononda. At some points it’s a deliberate showcase for different regional styles; at others, an illustration of how neatly and joyously different musical personalities and backgrounds can come together. If you enjoyed Louis Mhlanga’s collaborations with Regis Gizavo, this one’s definitely for you.
Pianist Ramon Alexander has done his share of playing standards, and playing within the conventional ‘Cape Jazz’ envelope. His latest outing, Echoes from Louwskloof (www.ramonalexander.co.za), gives him the opportunity to speak with a more individual jazz voice, in the company of reedman Zeke le Grange, drummer Annemie Nel, bassist Chadleigh Gowar and guests. It’s a tour through Alexander’s personal and community history, with nods to mentors and heroes from John Coltrane and Winston Mankunku to Jack Momple, Jansen and McKenzie. What has always been intriguing about Alexander is the individuality of his vision. All the ingredients of the classic Cape recipe are detectable: the sonorous Moravian hymns of Mamre, where he was born; goema rhythms; East Asian scales, and Cape Town’s longstanding fascination with fusion. But Alexander – maybe it’s his training as a wine-maker – constantly deconstructs and reconstructs: a subtle pinch of this; a nuanced hint of that; a wholly unexpected but perfectly complimentary note from elsewhere. His Mankunku tribute, I Wish I Knew Mankunku, for example, honours the saxophonist’s harmonic approach, rather than making any attempt to ‘cover’ the Warren/Gordon original or to imagine a tune Mankunku might have written. With support from a tight, empathetic ensemble Alexander has bottled a real Cape original.
TopDogSA is a new name for a musicians who have been around for a while: pianist Camillo Lombard and reedman Donvino Prins with guitarist Mark Williams, bassist Charlton Daniels and drummer Mornay Hoffmeester. But the group’s first recorded outing together, GriquaDNA, is something of a surprise. Lombard and Prins are skilled and accomplished musicians, but they’ve spent much of their careers teaching, and playing other people’s music. Distinguished other people, to be sure, ranging from Jimmy Dludlu and Judith Sephuma to Tevin Campbell and Kirk Whalum – but also company that tends towards pop, fusion, and easy listening.
GriquaDNA lays its cards firmly on the table with a spoken Nama introduction underpinned by guest Schilder’s bow. “This music was a watershed for us,” Prins said at the launch. “It was seeing how we could combine our heritage with the kind of jazz people are used to hearing us play.” The combination turns out very well indeed. The sound is still tight and eminently danceable, but the traditional elements are used as far more than decoration – the title track, for example, is built around San hop-step rhythm patterns, and similar shapes underpin the indignant Nkandla. It’s good to hear both Lombard and Prins stretching out a great deal more than they sometimes do in backing bands, and on their own original material. Prins’s saxophone gets a chance to sound tough as well as sweet, and we remember that Lombard used to be Jansen’s piano player, with all the edge that role demanded. Newcomer Williams here is a revelation, with a guitar range that suggests lots of listening to West African as well as South African and American music.
Something the group’s long residency in the pop world has taught them, however, is the importance of a strong, memorable melodic hook; several of the tracks are positive earworms. With a final blessing from another of Cape Jazz’s founding fathers, in the form of a guest spot from Jonathan Butler, GriquaDNA manages to be both a crowd-pleaser and an imaginative tribute to the work that older musicians like Butler, Schilder and the late Jansen have done in stretching the Cape Jazz envelope.
The sad part is, it’s hard for listeners in Jo’burg to access this music. And with the tragic, imminent closure of the Killarney branch of indy record store High Fidelity, it’s going to get even harder.
It’s never fails to make me think, workshopping for a week with arts content creators – something I do every year at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. The feedback varies from year to year, although the subject matter – we cover a section of the national journalism curriculum – doesn’t.
Most interesting, are the responses to our listening sessions, where we hear and reflect on a pre-selection of tracks related to jazz in general, South African jazz history, and artists due to appear at the festival. Last year, the group split sharply between fundis and refuseniks, the latter group (although in all other respects perceptive, hardworking arts journalists) apparently afflicted with acute ADD if asked to sit and listen carefully to even a scant three minutes of music.
You see that split in audiences too. This year, a colleague very politely asking some loud chatterers to tone it down (she was trying to immerse herself in the silvery sounds of Rahul Sharma’s santoor) was told: “This is a live gig! If you want to listen to the music buy a CD and stay at home with it!”
But this year’s workshop was very different. Responses in the feedback almost unanimously demanded more listening sessions, with comments like: “The jazz listening sessions taught me how to … identify sounds in the music and the stories that it was telling”; “Listening to the music – I didn’t know that one song could have so many interpretations and meanings to different people.”; “Having grown up with jazz, been hearing jazz playing at home, learning to LISTEN was invaluable.”
Learning to listen is a key skill for any journalist; studies in social interaction suggest that it’s also a key skill for human beings wanting to establish decent relationships. But why, – increasingly, and especially in relation to music – do we need to learn to listen? Why is it so hard and apparently painful for some people to do it?
Admittedly, I’m a dinosaur. I grew up in a post-war working-class family with a very small income. We never owned a TV and rarely went to cinemas or theatres. I learned to listen via the radio: that was my window on the world. I listened to drama, music (sometimes quite weird music), short stories. Paying attention to every word mattered. Later on, I listened to talented DJs like the late John Peel who would orient his listeners’ ears towards the detail and nuance in the tracks he curated and played: “Did you hear what that guitarist was doing?” he’d demand.
Today’s life is not like that. There is sound everywhere: in lifts, supermarkets, malls, offices. You hear it, but it’s so banal that you must actively learn not to listen to it. Many people, young and old, carry their own insulating sounds with them on phones via headphones. Plugged into a tinny sonic blanket, they function cut off from the aural world they travel through. One study estimated that between 2004/5 and 2010/11, the number of people injured or killed by walking in front of moving cars or trains while wearing headphones had trebled – and it has continued to rise. If you screamed, they wouldn’t hear you either.
For some people the headphones are a protest against hearing beige muzak they have not chosen. For others, streaming pop radio sounds, it’s merely an alternative from the 50 shades of beige created by music controllers. As Cassandra Wilson argued in Cape Town: “Pop radio has no dynamics: no peaks or valleys. We’re being fed music that’s not reflecting life…”
Omnipresent sonic commodities which in their mode of delivery cut individuals off from their communities and in their texture flatten the sharp edges of life…sounds a lot like George Orwell’s soma, doesn’t it?
Getting used to music only as a relentless background has definitely changed behaviour at shows. It makes listeners selfish, careless of their neighbours’ comfort; careless of what the artist is trying to communicate; careless of the sounds themselves. A commodified ‘experience’ advertised via selfies and tweets, takes priority: “Look at me – here I am at so-and-so’s gig.” Commenting on current stiff audiences even at punk gigs previously pulsating with pogo-ing bodies, one commentator noted:
‘… the increase in stiff crowds runs parallel to the rise of mobile phones at shows. After all, it’s hard to dance when you’re concentrating on tweeting, taking pictures or recording the show. It’s possible that the crowd are not dancing to protect their mobiles; the risks of going wild are not just to your life and limb but to your connectivity. You certainly can’t tweet “I’m crowd surfing” as it would be too difficult, while tweeting “I crowd surfed” is so two minutes ago.’
But to fully enjoy every dimension of that music – and to competently live life as social beings – we need to learn to listen too. My workshop heard four versions of some songs by Billie Holiday: from the singer herself, and from DeeDee Bridgewater, Jose James and Wilson. They all sounded different and said something different: in the singer’s intention and in each listener’s reception. It was a very modest experiment to open a few ears to jazz.
But maybe it’s worth replicating, in other contexts and with other music genres too: how on earth can you understand To Pimp a Butterfly or Formation (both musical artworks designed to make you think) if you don’t listen? If we don’t listen, we talk right past one another. And we’re living, in South Africa, in 2016, slap in the middle of the kind of mess that results from that.
There is a moment on the 1962 Cold Castle Festival recording that sums up the cultural politics of the year. A rowdy audience receives Eric Nomvete and his Big Five (formed only days before the event, and featuring trumpet wunderkind Mongezi Feza). Into the catcalls and yells of “Come on, man – let’s go!” Nomvete’s outfit embarks on a startlingly simple series of chords that triggers a collective intake of breath. When the unmistakably Xhosa four-note pattern that anchors the number raps out, the stadium erupts. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6jetAovKbQ ) In Ndikho Xaba’s words, the music was asserting what the crowd wanted to say, less than two years after Sharpeville: “This is who we are.”
Something damn close to that happened this year at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Tumi Mogorosi’s Project ELO presented a set of sombre, gorgeous processional sounds, mingling the free textures of layered human and instrumental voices with a precise respect for musical space and silence. (“Silence is as important as sound,” Cassandra Wilson had reminded us earlier at her press conference.) Then the ten-piece thinned to five: Themba Maseko and Gabisile Motuba’s voices, Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s tenor sax, Thembinkosi Mavimbela’s bass and Mogorosi’s relentless drums for (Sometime I Feel Like a) Motherless Child. As jagged dissonance counterpointed a haunting melody, the song was transmuted into a blues for our 2016: the dislocations of poverty, racism and xenophobia; leaders erasing or laughing at their own broken promises – and people working together to create change and beauty. The crowd in a packed Rosie’s felt it, and, just as for Pondo Blues, the crowd roared.
That was the performance of the festival.
The music wasn’t necessarily “better” than the rest. Making music is not a competition with rankings, winners and losers. Transcendent moments from brilliantly accomplished artists – but reflecting very different visions and styles – were everywhere, on every stage. Mogorosi’s set, however, perfectly reflected the things that needed to be said.
The festival now showcases a majority of South African acts. That’s wholly fitting, because foreigners don’t travel to Africa to hear their own music, but to hear ours. However, if any doubters wondered whether South African jazz was strong enough to carry so much of the bill, this year provided resounding proof. The calibre of playing and composition from local artists left visiting musicians and journalists stunned. For the first time I can remember, the media interview slots for South African artists were solidly booked. Not only have South African musicians something to tell the world, but the world is now interested to listen. Events like Cape Town play no small part in that. However, there was too much going on to give a detailed hearing to it all, and my more detailed comments below focus on those acts and artists I listened to in depth, for a fair amount of time.
Some highlights must be mentioned. Two “legendary ladies of song” on Friday evening – Dorothy Masuka and Abigail Kubeka – and a third on Saturday – Vuyiswa ‘Viva’ Mbambisa – demonstrated once more that for a good singer, the experience and intelligence of maturity increase, rather than diminishing, what you can say with a song.
Pianist Nduduzo Makathini crafted a set that shimmered – sometimes literally, given the abundance of silver bells – with the spirits of the musicians it homaged, and especially Bheki Mseleku. Makhathini’s soaring keyboard runs sometimes sounded uncannily like Mseleku’s, and the lightness Mseleku so valued was also embodied in UK guest Eddie Parker’s flute. Parker took us flying in search of musical truth; the vast skill it takes to make an instrument sound that good was not employed for virtuosic display but rather as a launching pad for exploring space, sound and spirit.
Bassist Benjamin Jephtha, and pianists Thandi Ntuli, Ramon Alexander and Bokani Dyer are all well known to Cape Town audiences, having lived, studied and gigged extensively in the city. Their shows were full – in Ntuli’s case, the Molelekwa venue was barely big enough to contain her audience. None of them disappointed.
Two other veterans, guitarist Themba Mokoena and pianist/bandleader Tete Mbambisa delighted their respective crowds. Mbambisa crafted piano solos that merited a venue with better acoustics, but his Big Sound arrangements spoke powerfully both across generations and across the cavernous Kippies hall. Mokoena’s first plangent guitar notes in Rosie’s had audience thumbs urgently SMS-ing friends to come and discover this great player. “Who IS this guy?” a man sitting next to me asked. “He’s amazing.”
This year, the festival also offered more than usual ‘World Music’ – however you define what is often merely a convenient marketing category for non-Western sounds. The acts illustrated the dilemmas inherent in uniting elements of tradition with modern forms and instruments. There are two main ways. The first is accretion: add the elements together, but keep them relatively intact. For Indian writer and performer Amit Chaudhuri this approach is problematic: “ [For example], a …classical musician moonlighting with Western players: him soloing, representing some so-called immemorial tradition; them adding colour and representing the modern – neither category in itself static but becoming static in their meeting.” The second is transformation, which Chaudhuri finds in “moments of recognition…of diverse modes of contact; idiosyncratic disruptions of time, that [speak of] an ongoing process and networks of affiliation stretching in every direction.” The musical elements change in conversation with one another, creating something new.
Cape Town offered both approaches. The accretive extreme was Moroccan violinist Hicham Telmoudi’s trip around the musical styles and instruments of his country. It was, in about equal proportions, breathtaking and cheesy. Breathtaking was Telmoudi’s own violin playing – in which Andalusia was as present as Fez – and the intricately patterned conversations between multiple percussion instruments. Those latter evoked the spiritual power of the Gnawa tradition of black Moroccans, which has inspired countless Western musicians. Stuck on top, and adding the cheese, were synths and guitars reminiscent of a hotel tourist show. All the musicians were skilled, and, to be fair, many in the Molelekwa audience around me loved the cheese. But it occupied time when we could have heard more of the truly fresh, complex and intriguing music the ensemble also had to offer.
If, on the other hand, transformation and “idiosyncratic disruptions of time” are your thing (as they are mine) then Ilham Ersahin’s Istanbul Sessions was also one of the performances of the weekend. In their press conference, workshop, and interviews, Ersahin’s eclectic outfit explicitly rejected the accretive approach. “Audiences hear ‘Eastern’ melodies,” said bassist Alp Ersonmez, “but that’s not what we’re doing. Sure, we have Turkish roots. They come with our genes. And we have our knowledge of Western music. What comes out is not a deliberate attempt to build a bridge between those two, but something effortless and different that happens within us and between us.” Imagine Gil Evans playing not Jimi Hendrix but Led Zeppelin, with a few darvesh mystics and Roma travellers jamming along: complex, clever, joyfully noisy music that made you want to move rather than to taxonomise the influences.
Among our own players, guitarist Derek Gripper is a much quieter transformer: re-visioning classical Malian kora music for solo guitar in a performance that commanded so much intense, respectful listening that you might have imagined Rosie’s was empty. It wasn’t. We were just bewitched.
Saxophonist Mark Turner should have been in Cape Town long ago; he has been a growing and respected force in US jazz for many years, with a distinctive playing style and composer’s approach. But he’s a musician’s musician rather than a self-promoting ‘star’ – “If you like,” he says wryly, “I’m the anti-Heroic Tenor.” In his workshop, he ceded space to multi-instrumentalist Dizu Plaatjies, clearly fascinated by the overtone sounds and overlaid patterns on display; on stage, he was very much inside the ensemble rather than leading from the front. “As a leader, I see myself as a facilitator. I write the music; I choose the musicians – and that’s enough. Sometimes, I may not even need to play to help that particular music come out …”
The audience, however, was very glad Turner did play. His current album, Lathe of Heaven, takes its title from an Ursula le Guin science fiction tale whose narrative underlines how ‘reality’ may not be as solid as you think it is, and one in which liminality, discontinuities, and lacunae in knowledge infuse the main character’s world. On the surface, Turner’s playing isn’t like that. It is a continuous, unwinding satin ribbon of sound that takes the listener on an extended journey; Turner’s sinuous lines were explicitly influenced by Warne Marsh and some of that reedman’s contemporaries. Look closer, however, and the ribbon’s surface is embossed and incised with details, and that’s where the spaces and questions happen. Yet, however modernist, tradition runs through the music’s veins. Sometimes, as trumpeter Jason Palmer takes buzzy-bee flight, facilitator Turner stands to the side of the stage, playing quiet framing choruses in precisely the way a whole horn line might have in one of those 1940s big bands. It’s cerebral music with only a few heads you might leave whistling. But the complexity makes you smile rather than frown in concentration, with passages of speed-merchant exhilaration (especially from Palmer, who for some reason kept reminding me of Mongs) and a sly wit – for example in the song title It’s Not All Right With Me. Our Poet Laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile, once described Johnny Dyani’s playing thus: “a harmattan of colours/becomes an area of feeling/ where a rainbow of feathers/ peoples all space.” Mark Turner’s whirling, finely crafted details do that too.
Cassandra Wilson’s leaner Cape Town outfit still retained the edgy feel that made Coming Forth By Day such a startlingly fresh homage to Billie Holiday. Though Wilson showcased more of Holiday’s lyrical material (Moonlight, Crazy He Calls Me, You Go To My Head; there was no Strange Fruit), her consummate storytelling provided a knowing interrogation of genre, lyric and social context. Rarely has All of Me come across more savagely as an attack on a consuming relationship: “You took the best/So why not take the rest?” Unexpected delights were appearances by Capetonian Tony Cedras on accordion and bow, and violinist Charles Burnham (who as well as being a Wilson regular has worked across genres, from the String Trio of New York to James ‘Blood’ Ulmer). The stage lights struck sparks of blue electric fire off Burnham’s instrument, just as his notes struck fire in the music. The whole performance was an object lesson – at a festival where assertive female soul voices were prominent – about the importance of a singer’s intelligence and command of timing and phrasing, rather than her volume.
As an audience experience, the event, as always, worked pretty well. Tight timekeeping avoided slippage, so that it really was possible to dovetail visits to different gigs. The simple act of roping off areas around escalator exits avoided the dangerous logjams that bedevil Joy of Jazz. Frustrating clashes between acts that might appeal to similar audiences also served a more positive purpose: they helped to avoid stampedes.
The Kippie’s acoustic is as woolly, echoey and painful as ever; that’s a problem it seems impossible to solve. Surprisingly, on the first night Rosie’s didn’t sound quite as perfect as usual – but whatever the problem was, it had largely been solved by the second. Some audience members still treat the Molelekwa hall as a pub, yattering, phoning and selfie-ing their way even through performances shaped for careful listening – which may be great for their experience, but is highly oppressive for the rest of us, as well as disrespectful to artists.
None of the record stalls carried a full selection of current product. You could buy any Cassandra Wilson album – except Coming Forth By Day. Lathe of Heaven was equally invisible; so was much more. This may be a supply problem rather than the responsibility of festival or stallholders, but it is frustrating for would-be buyers, and downright stupid in business terms.
I’ll be back next year. And I won’t stop hoping or lobbying for Vijay Iyer…