We now have an indication of the programmes for the next two major jazz festivals of the year: the Standard Bank Jazz Festival (June 30 –July 9) in Grahamstown, and the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz in Sandton, Johannesburg (15-17 Sept). On this initial showing, greater contrast in curatorial approaches would be hard to imagine. One opens doors on fresh jazz worlds; the other comforts audiences with a great deal of music they already know.
The Grahamstown festival programme is complete, and the event continues to do what it has done so well for the past several years: offer intelligent insight into jazz around the world. Though there are always some major stars on display – the Brazilian Trio Corrente this year have garnered both a Grammy and a Latin Grammy for their work; Norwegian reedman Petter Wettre has won his country’s equivalent twice – that is not really the point of the event. Rather, concert-goers can gain a sense of what they might hear if they were able to summon a magic carpet to drop them off for successive concerts at jazz clubs in Brazil, Norway, Austria (Michaela Rabitsch and Robert Pawlick), Sweden (David Kontra and Per Thornberg), Switzerland (Andreas Tschopp and more), the Netherlands (Ton Roos and Hein van de Geyn), and the UK (Dave O’Higgins). Equally importantly, the jazz players themselves get opportunities to teach (at the preceding youth jazz events), share stages and network with each other and their South African counterparts.
The South African jazz contingent this year will impress. As well as Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, singer/trombonist Siya Makuzeni, there’s bassist Carlo Mombelli, guitarist Dave Ledbetter, drummer Frank Paco, and a truly dazzling assembly of pianists: Afrika Mkhize, Kyle Shepherd, Paul Hanmer , and Bokani Dyer with his Soul Housing project. Add to these the Young Guns ensemble of reedmen Sisonke Xonti and Justin Bellairs, bassist Romy Brauteseth, pianist Thandi Ntuli and drummer Claude Cozens and an overseas visitor unfamiliar with our jazz scene will find a representative sample of our current best.
Grahamstown eschews glitz in favour of the quiet, confident assertion of South African jazz as an equal participant in a world genre. It makes generous room for the kinds of music broader audiences also appreciate – this year, there’s Simphiwe Dana, Caiphus Semenya, Ringo Madlingozi, Loyiso Bala, and The Kiffness – but jazz is always at the core of what happens, with a carefully curated balance between different instruments, sounds and formats.
Madlingozi (and, for obvious reasons as Standard Bank Young Artist, Makuzeni) crop up at Joy of Jazz too, in an initial line-up so top-heavy with singers that fans of instrumental improvisation will need to search carefully for their preference. Vocalists listed in addition to those two are Judith Sephuma, Lira, Lindiwe Maxolo, Nomfundo Xaluva and Max Hoba as well as visitors Canadian Renee Lee, Ethiopian Ester Rada, Americans Deborah J Carter and Jose James, and Dutch-Cameroonian Ntjam Rosie.
It’s South Africa that, in the main, provides the instrumentalists so far: reedmen Barney Rachabane and Moreira Chonguica; trumpeter Feya Faku; and guitarist Billy Monama with an ensemble including the equally formidable veteran Themba Mokoena.
Vocal overload aside, the other striking characteristic of this line-up is its conservatism. These are all artists who deserve the stage, and all are skilled players and singers. But they are also largely all known quantities, and (apart from a welcome contingent of pan-African names that are genuinely new) some of them often appear on Johannesburg stages. Joy of Jazz has a history of favouring familiar sounds, but in 2014 and 2015 the event seemed to be creating a home for music that surprised and sometimes challenged, as well as that which delighted, with names including Tomasz Stanko, Kyle Shepherd, Christian Scott, Dwight Trible, Trilok Gurtu and William Parker.
Edge is not completely absent this year, and it’s as likely to come from some of the South Africans (most notably Makuzeni’s electro-vocal explorations) as from the visitors. However, Kendrick Scott and Oracle provided some intriguing journeys outside the box on their album The Source, and they may be the guests who challenge timid genre definitions.
Surprises might also come from Senegalese bassist Alun Wade – Richard Bona has already well demonstrated how that instrument, in West African hands, can draw on multiple traditions to create complex tapestries of sound. Otherwise, unless some additional names are announced – with several weeks to go, that’s entirely possible – it looks as if Sandton in September will be a feast primarily for those who love voices.