SAMA 22 Jazz: let’s hear it for the big-band

The ZAR Jazz Orchestra’s SAMA win for One Night in the Sun is both welcome and long overdue. Long overdue first because bandleader/co-arranger, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt has been generating SAMA-worthy material as composer, player and arranger for more than a decade: with small groups and projects such as Language 12. All the tracks on the SAMA-winning double CD are Wyatt’s compositions or co-compositions, some with this year’s SBYA for jazz, singer/trombonist Siya Makuzeni.

ZAR Jazz Orchestra: Marcus Wyatt and Siya Makuzeni

Long overdue second because the artists the album features represent some of the best of the younger generation: Makuzeni, pianist Bokani Dyer, reedman Sisonke Xonti and bassist Romy Brauteseth among them.

And long overdue third because the big-band and arrangements for that format – as I noted in the sleeve notes I wrote for the album – are an essential strand in the DNA of South African jazz, from Peter Rezant and Tete Mbambisa to Chris Columbus and Chris McGregor. Yet they are comparatively rarely acknowledged in sponsorships, awards or performance opportunities.

The reasons are not hard to understand. A big-band demands adequate time to compose and arrange, a big stage, excellent sound engineering and, of course, wages for a dozen and a half players and other important role-players. (For this album, those who attended the live recording will be aware of the vital role taken by conductor and music director Janine Neethling.)

Yet big-bands matter – and not simply because they sound good. They offer challenging composing opportunities and scope to paint with a vastly enlarged palette of instrumental colours. They offer players experiences of a kind of discipline, collectivity and improvisatory context very different from the small group.

The sound, of course, is also very good indeed. Listeners can lose themselves in it as Tshepo Tsosetsi’s saxophone weaves around Makuzeni’s voice and Wyatt’s horn, becoming more and more richly immersed as contributions build to the triumphant, multilayered full ensemble polyphony of a number such as You Were There.

Because of the heavy resource demands of a big-band, some earlier, far more loudly trumpeted projects came burdened with over-elaborate agendas. They were created to frame a big name or two, or demonstrate welding disparate music genres together, or something else that would help fill the house at some high-priced casino venue or other. The agenda of One Night in the Sun was far more modest: good musicians who gel when they work together and whom fans already value as stars (but without the hype); good compositions; and a setting before a warm local audience at the accessible, decently engineered Radiopark Auditorium (thanks, SABC).

We need to remember, when we talk about ‘developing local music’, that development is not simply a matter of airplay – at whatever percentage. Development is also (and in the long run more importantly) about extending musical possibilities: growing original repertoire, the skills of musicians and the ears of listeners. One Night in the Sun scores strongly on all these counts. More projects and winners like this, please? And more airplay for the results, even outside the specialist enclaves of late-night jazz shows?


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