We got a small advance taste, at the Orbit on Saturday, of the kind of music Siya Makuzeni will bring to Grahamstown in a month’s time as this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for jazz.
The evening had an edgy start. The players, Makuzeni disclosed, were just shaking off the bad vibes of a potentially dangerous traffic incident and some ensuing racist road-rage. It wasn’t quite the Grahamstown band either. Multiple, competing events such as always pack a month-end Saturday meant that reedman Sisonke Xonti was committed elsewhere. So this was a quintet, not the festival sextet: Makuzeni with pianist Thandi Ntuli, trumpeter Sakhile Simani, bassist Benjamin Jephta and drummer Ayanda Sikade. In that altered soundscape, the leader opted to play two entirely vocal sets and leave her Facebook best friend – her trombone – in its carrying case.
The material, though, reflected where Makuzeni’s music is now going, and it’s a very intriguing journey.
Though she’s actually been both composing and leading ensembles for a very long time (she began in music in her early teens), audiences have often encountered Makuzeni as a distinctive musical presence in ensembles or productions led by others: The Prisoners of Strange; the Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra; Language 12; Mzansi Magic’s 50’s TV drama The Road; and James Ngcobo’s Songs from Jazztown at the Market Theatre. Makuzeni as leader has the space to bring out her own musical character far more fully.
As well as playing ‘bone, Makuzeni is well able to fill the shoes of a classic jazz-band singer, as she did in the Market production, and demonstrated again on Saturday with her self-penned, deliberately retro, ballad No Time To Wait.
Two characteristics of classic jazz singing are central to her wider, wilder musical identity too. She can and does scat in classic style, as well as in harmonically more subversive formats. She gave us both on her re-imagining of Bheki Mseleku’s Through the Years, very much in the spirit of Abbey Lincoln, but absolutely not any kind of cover. Makuzeni also has near-perfect diction: a skill that is sometimes undervalued. But it matters when the notes are going sham-boom-shedazzle-ow-ow-ow, but the lyrics still have something to say and we need to hear them. However much Makuzeni fragments the phrases and growls, roars, shouts and bends the sounds, you can always catch the words.
Traditional references – specific types of extended vocalese; the declamatory style of the imbongi; clicking sounds from isiXhosa – also infuse the improvisations (check Moya Oyingcwele on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6Pqk7sZAo8 ), alongside rhythms from rock and reggae as well as jazz, and electronics that build up multiple vocal layers. It’s sometimes as if Billie Holiday (sometimes the tonal quality of Makuzeni’s voice irresistibly recall that singer), Busi Mhlongo and the entire ensemble of Zap Mama were on stage together, expressing themselves through a single set of vocal chords.
The band is gelling nicely too. Ntuli shares something of Makuzeni’s chameleon nature, finding capable, interesting fills for the retro ballad but revealing a very different character, by turns edgy and dreamy, on numbers with different demands, as on the rhythmically tricky Out of This World (available at Bandcamp as the Sextet’s first digital single: https://siyamakuzenisextet.bandcamp.com/releases ). Jephta and Sikade move discreetly into the rhythmic shadows when steady underpinning is all the music needs, but can also both pull out gorgeous solo work.
The horns, of course, sound completely different when there are more, with interplay between them, as the videos demonstrate. I missed that bigger horn line and Makuzeni’s ‘bone playing in particular, on Saturday. But it wasn’t really a problem – the solos she takes with her voice embody a horn-player’s ears and imagination and that’s one of the things that make her such a remarkable musician.
Book for Makuzeni’s shows in Grahamstown at : https://www.nationalartsfestival.co.za/news/naf16-bookings-open-9-may/
Some interesting slices of history are promised this month and should go into your diary. On June 4th, pianist Mervyn Afrika will play the Orbit: a return from 27 years in the UK for the Spirits Rejoice co-founder and longtime friend and supporter of the late Bheki Mseleku. On June 12 at the Maboneng Bioscope,, there will be a Joburg premiere for Shwabada, film-maker Nhlanhla Masondo’s documentary study of pioneering avant-garde multi-instrumentalist Ndikho Xaba.
At Emperor’s Palace on June 15/16 Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela headline a “Jazz Epistles Reunion”. That show cannot be a simple re-creation; both the headline names are very different players these days. Two of the legendary 1960s outfit are now deceased: bassist Johnny Gertze and saxophone titan Kippie Moeketsi. Drummer Makhaya Ntshoko still lives and plays, but is based in Switzerland, and there’s no word on whether trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, also happily still with us – and in Jozi – will be able to guest. But since the power of the Epistles’ music was rooted in a shared vision and in tight ensemble work, as well as in the towering presence of Moeketsi, it would be useful if the Palace publicists at least shared with us the names of the rest of the band…