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.