Conversation and the Uses of Sound – guitarist Vuma Levin’s Life and Death on the Otherside of the Dream

general poster 02a - 18.04.2017“I’m not a jazz musician,” guitarist/composer Vuma Levin asserts, about half way through our interview on his new release, Life and Death on the Otherside of the Dream (launching at the Afrikan Freedom Station on May 4, and featuring multiple South African players as well as his longtime European quartet).

Denials like that crop up fairly regularly these days. Usually, the artist in question puts the emphasis on genre: jazz is too confining a label; jazz carries too much baggage. It’s much less usual to hear almost equal emphasis, as Levin places it, on the word ‘musician.’

Some of this stark self-assessment comes from what he sees as his late start in music and jazz.

“I started music late,” he explains. “Way too late, in fact. I was 20 and I had no natural affinity for playing. I look at some of my peers and see people who, even when they’re not practicing a lot, can pick up a sound, or know just how to use an instrument as a conduit for their music… Maybe because they were exposed to music from an early stage, they have more building-blocks in place than I had.”

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Vuma Levin

That may, he concedes, be an idealisation, based on just how much practice-time his peers conceal behind a deliberately laid-back façade. Even so, it’s not how he is: he is frank about having to work relentlessly at his skill. And the work ethic persists. The title suite that occupies half the new album took him eight months to write; a process that entailed rigorously applying classical compositional technique to a gloriously eclectic set of raw materials and influences.

“My first exposure to jazz and playing were at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), through lessons with the late John Fourie, “ Levin recalls. “Earlier, the music I’d heard at home was the singer/songwriters of rock, from my parents’ collection. [Fourie] played me Nights in Tunisia. And I was like: ‘It’s just noise; a random collection of notes. Why do people listen to that? What’s the deal?’ It was only in my second year at TUT that I stated appreciating jazz. And it took me huge hours of practice.

“Then, for the longest time, my goal was to be the best guitarist in the world.” He smiles ruefully back at his own youthful (he’s now 30) hubris. “Well, that’s not going to happen.”

Such self-deprecation might seem like false modesty, especially if you’ve listened to Levin’s playing (see, for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xpdp07K4kQ or hear his work on Rebirth, on this new album). He certainly makes good music, and in a jazz milieu emphatically not about popularity contests, “best in the world” was always irrelevant.

But it’s not that. Though Levin’s statements about what he is not do underplay his skill, they also embody an implicit and intriguing set of assertions about what he is. Those assertions are key to understanding album number two.

The word that keeps recurring is “conversation”.

Levin’s debut, The Spectacle of An-Other (http://mp3dlfree.info/track/211575784/kayafm959-vuma-levin-quintet-live-on-taos ), aimed to position him as a voice from a particular space. His landscape was the paradoxes and tensions between stereotypes of African identities and their reality, interwoven with reflections on the journeys and frontiers of his own life, including his responses to academia (Levin currently lectures part-time at Wits).

The music was interesting, but “I never intended it to be popular music, “ he explains, “and it didn’t aspire to earning big bucks.” Levin finds the idea of being in the public eye as a music star as unappealing as the idea of defending theses before panels as a scholar – that’s another aspect of “not being” a jazz musician.

Spectacle offered rich exposition, but it didn’t particularly exhort us to talk back, and that’s where Life & Death… is different. Equally ideas-driven, the sonic discourse is now occupying as much of the foreground as the social and political, and the sounds Levin employs are very consciously marshaled to draw us into the debate.

“I enjoy composing more than playing,” he says. “The music I enjoy listening to does a lot with the efficient use of basic materials. I consciously didn’t want this album to be heavy with solos. Rather, it’s compositionally dense, with recognisable popular music progressions. There’s a huge variety of influences, and I’m using them to negotiate a space in which I can talk to more kinds of people. Hopefully, the track titles contribute to that too. ”

To say that a “basic material” of music is sound itself may seem like stating the obvious. “But sound – call it texture if you like – as a parameter of music, is neglected,” says Levin. “An album like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is a sound-designed album. Radiohead use that approach. For Carlo Mombelli, sound is an extremely important affective part of his music. Maybe that’s also where my own composition is heading…”

Part of Levin’s focus on the uses of sound emerges in the way Life & Death…weaves sound-clips into the texture of tracks. One, Conversations, employs a digital sample of the sound of San speech.

It could, Levin agrees, be read as appropriation. “It’s meant to be an abstract representation of a conversation in post-apartheid South Africa, with the digital use of ‘clicks’ signifying both Africa and modernity, as a way of unpacking this idea of a ‘national conversation’.”

But, no, Levin did not seek permission from its subjects to use the clip. Even more questionably, it was sourced from YouTube, and he doesn’t actually know what the words mean.

“And I’m willing to be called out on that. In fact, if that happens, the track has served its purpose in starting, and making us listen to, necessary conversations. We need to view those conversations through multiple epistemic lenses. Because, remember” – here he turns my question about appropriation neatly back on me – “’What does it mean?’ is itself a very problematic question.”

That kind of conceptual challenge through sound – what Levin calls “music that makes a tangible connection between theory and practice” – is what he sees as the strength of his work. And if praxis is some of what that’s about, he also acknowledges “provocateur – by deliberately invoking/composing difference.”

Provocation is most likely to be identified by listeners in the title suite, which includes an extract from Thabo Mbeki’s I Am An African speech. Much as it is wonderful to recall the poetry and vision of Mbeki’s words, it’s hard now to hear them untarnished by the memory of, for example, the 300 000-plus Africans who died of AIDS under Mbeki’s folie de grandeur watch.

Levin’s ahead of me again. “In that speech, Mbeki presented an inspiring foundational principle for a post-colonial nation: a space where shared – even if antagonistic – histories, rather than genes, define who we are. It’s an idea you can also find in Homi Babha. Yes, that dream has run out of steam. So in one way the track is a celebration of it; in another, the sense of doom, the dark sonic stuff in the background, reflects mourning the end of it – realizing you’re not a kid any more.”

Levin says he’s not sure what the best conditions of reception for this new album will be, or how audiences will relate to it. He speculates about a different kind of music event, where conversation could be as important as playing and listening – and he might well find the scope to create that at the Afrikan Freedom Station.

But in terms of such goals, does the album work? Well, when I met up with Levin, discussion of the sound-sampled tracks significantly extended and deepened our interview. They certainly are conversation-starters, in exactly the way Levin intends.

But there’s other stuff on Life & Death…that works too: the stuff that new-album reviews more commonly cover. The eclecticism of the album’s sources make it a much quirkier ride than Spectacle.., with piquant sonic contrasts that can startle or make you smile.

Despite Levin’s disavowals, the stories the album tells please the ears as much as they provoke the mind. Those sampled human voices are a very effective tactic for starting literal and musical conversations. While the mood is often regretful (as in the lyrically sad A Necessary Pain) it’s not unvaried. The Maze and Rebirth have genuinely catchy hooks and rhythms interwoven with thoughtful soloing – Levin’s aim of limiting solos creates focus, not austerity. A String Struck, offers a very modernist look at a melodic theme Sipho Gumede and Menyatso Mathole might have enjoyed playing; End of the Rainbow marries wry satire with upbeat African jazz.

If I found myself hitting ‘replay’ quite a lot, it was because some tracks were so crammed with textures and ideas that they disrupted my customary attempts at focused, linear, listening. Levin would almost certainly consider that act of disruption no bad thing.

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Growing up in jazz: despite falling sales, kids in cities everywhere still come to the music

 

For Thandiswa Mazwai, it all started when her uncle came to stay. “He brought this massive sound system with him – and that’s when the house was filled with music.”

Mind you, Mazwai’s uncle was no average fan. He was Fitzroy Ngcukana, scion of the legendary Cape Town jazz dynasty, musician and sometime Culture Secretary of the Pan-Africanist Congress. His collection spanned genres, dominated by jazz and African music. And that, in the context of an already music-loving family, was when Mazwai began to become aware of “the stories carried by these [musicians]”. Later, she wondered why “we don’t have a culture of standards here.” It was the beginning of a journey that culminated in the release last October of Belede, where, with a jazz rhythm section, her voice curates a collection of historic South African songs carrying a powerful message for today.

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Thandiswa Mazwai

Mazwai’s not alone in the influences that helped her grow up in jazz. Jazz music sales and legal downloads are declining, and, internationally, audience surveys show a predominantly ageing, male (and often white) demographic. But young people are still coming to the music.

Often, they come by routes the commercial figures can’t track, such as genre-fluid bands, or independent gigs and online releases too small to feature in surveys – or even via illegal downloads. Enrolments in university jazz studies courses are rising. And often, it’s family or community that first spark that jones for jazz.

This year’s youngest stars at last month’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival were the school bands, with players predominantly aged between 14-16. Guitarist Keanan Lewis, for example, in Grade 11 at Wynberg Secondary School, has a father and brother who are both musicians; bassist Lance Pekeur got his opportunity to pick up the bass through church. Both youngsters mirror longstanding South African jazz traditions: dynastic jazz families (like the Ngcukanas) and church music education. That’s now offered by many denominations, but historically provided by missions in the Eastern Cape, and the Salvation Army.

But it wasn’t so different for Taylor McFerrin and Marcus Gilmore in the States. Taylor’s father is world-famous vocalist Bobby McFerrin; Gilmore’s grandfather, legendary drummer Roy Haynes. So when the young Taylor, after a period of avidly consuming Wu Tang Clan and Tribe Called Quest, began noticing that much hip-hop “was sampling ‘60s and ‘70s jazz”, he was easily able to enter “a period of stealing all my parents’ vinyl”. And, he concedes, when you’ve been exposed to so many genres “they’re going to come out in your own music some way.” Gilmore went one better: his grandfather gifted him his kit – “He changed my life.”

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Marcus Gilmore

For saxophonist Kamasi Washington, the lineage is also direct: his father, Ricky, is a reedman who often tours with him. In his community in South Central LA, he noticed that many of the young players he hung out with were second-generation musicians. “There’s a thing that happens when music is always around. I guess it becomes more natural, more intuitive, because it’s always been there for you.” His father and his friends practiced constantly, and talked about the other artists they’d worked with: “You heard stories about great players you’d never hear anywhere else – but it also made being a musician more normal. These were just people my dad knew.”

Yet Washington’s jazz family stretches much further, back to Africa. He describes the uncanny experience of starting to study ethnomusicology, hearing traditional African sounds and feeling a “direct connection. I’d never heard that music before – but somehow, I had.”

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Kamasi Washington

It doesn’t always work that way. Cape Town trumpeter Darren English recalls being “bored” when his father dragged him to music festivals as a child. For English, what started as a whim – buying a harmonica to try and play When the Saints Go Marching In, which he’d enjoyed from the school band – was nurtured into skill and passion by his schoolteacher, Fred Kuit at Muizenberg High. It was Kuit who shaped the school band community within which English grew, followed by other musician/organisers, such as Derek Gripper and Bryden Bolton.

That’s similar to how another LA-born player, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa was drawn into the music. His liberal parents gave him and his brother the opportunity for music lessons. But it was the hybridity represented by jazz music and the jazz community, discovered after those lessons, which attracted him as much as the technical challenges. As an American of South Indian heritage, it offered a voice to “the beautiful confusion of knowing who you are, but not yet having the language to tell it.”

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Rudresh Mahanthappa

Those responsible for music education in Cape Town value that same kind of voice and opportunity. For music teacher Celeste Moses-Toefy at Wynberg High, the jazz band offers a creative outlet for intelligent, frustrated youngsters whose other options are often foregrounded by the risky life of gangs and the streets. Donveno Prins, who mentors the jazz festival music programme agrees: “It’s difficult, especially if you are young.”

Music was a buffer against the streets for Washington too. The media, he says, often painted the streets of South Central LA as drugs, gangs and “ ‘you livin’ in hell’. But you’re not.” Because of the area’s arts initiatives, and brilliant and inspiring mentors (Washington cites the late pianist Horace Tapscott), “it can be a paradise of encouragement, beauty and creativity.”

Alongside good tunes, great grooves – and astoundingly audacious ideas that sometimes deal in neither – it’s the music’s humane spirit (rooted in community) that keeps a healthy proportion of kids coming to jazz. Says Mahanthappa: “Music is a community event. We can play it alone – but it’s much more powerful when we do it together.” Both English and Washington call it “a conversation.” Gilmore defines working on music within your community as “a foundational principle” of the enterprise.

And why is that important? Let the last word, as the first, go to Mazwai: “All we can do as artists is create the spaces where people can express their humanity.”

 

Standard English – trumpeter Darren English talks about playing classics and originals

A decade back, word about a baby-faced brass player suddenly broke on the Cape Town jazz scene. From jam sessions at Swingers in Wetton to solo spots in the ensembles of Mark Fransman and Bryden Bolton, it seemed like teenage trumpeter Darren English was suddenly everywhere. Then, as now, he had well thought-out reasons: “If you take your instrument everywhere, you get to play with everybody – and learn from everybody,” he says.

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Darren English: then…

Now 26, English is taller, broader and less diffident, with a set of impressively hipsterish facial hair appropriate for the youngest-ever signing to Atlanta’s cutting-edge Hot Shoe Records, which released his debut abum, Imagine Nation (www.cdbaby.com/cd/darrenenglish) , in 2016.

Listening to him, it’s clear that after a serendipitous, almost accidental, discovery of the trumpet at high school, subsequent steps in his career have been guided by some very deliberate strategy – not to build his ‘brand’, but to grow his music’s skill and integrity.

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..and now, at CTIJF 2017

Of those early days, he tells how being dragged to jazz festivals by his father “bored me”. But then he bought a R20 second-hand harmonica on a whim, inspired by a desire to play When the Saints Go Marching In. He used harmonica-playing to busk his way though a Muizenberg High School homework assignment on ‘Something I Like Doing’. That effort caught the eagle eye of legendary music teacher Fred Kuit. “Come to music,” said Kuit. “Here’s a tambourine.” By the Christmas of that year he was allowed to take a cornet home for the holidays, was devouring albums like Hothouse Flowers and Kind of Blue – and the rest (two FMR Awards, trips to Norway, a Samro Overseas Scholarship, the album deal) is, as they say, history.

English is unstinting in his praise of Kuit, a legendary teacher responsible for the genesis of the Western Cape’s music focus schools. “Suddenly, when somebody becomes a mentor, they’re not just ‘that teacher’ any more. You talk; you hang out. My friends used to tell me: ‘Bro’ that’s weird!’’ Teachers like Kuit, he feels, are vital in a sometimes unfeeling education system. “School doesn’t allow you to be who you are. It boxes you in. And many teachers will fail you rather than finding something you can succeed in. [Without mentors like Fred] going to school won’t make you a scholar.”

English went on to study at UCT, and travelled around South Africa (including a two-year stint in one of Cape Town’s best known music finishing schools: the Jimmy Dludlu band) and in Scandinavia, appeared at the Grahamstown Jazz Festival and eventually graduated from Georgia State University with a Masters in Jazz Studies. In 2014, he appeared with Russell Gunn’s Krunk Orchestra at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, a meeting that eventually led to the Hot Shoe signing.

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His album’s title track, composed by English as part of a suite incorporating Nelson Mandela’s words, talks to South Africa on several levels. “It’s about the nation Mandela imagined: the end of apartheid, no inequality, justice, all that…” English looks reflective. “Whether it’s actually happened or not, that’s another story, but it’s the nation we still imagine and it wouldn’t even have started happening without him.”

As well as English’s own compositions, there are six standards on the album, including Cherokee, which he calls “the pinnacle song for getting your chops up – it’s the trumpet player’s song!” But the song isn’t there to show off speed. The real challenge, he says, is tackling such well-trodden terrain and “making it sound like you.” Trading phrases with fellow horn-men Russell Gunn and Joe Gransden in the studio (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppUhWAzbGsk ) , the goal was to achieve that.

He dismisses the jazz mythology of such encounters inevitably turning into ‘cutting contests’: “I’m not afraid of working with more experienced players like Russell and Joe. Music isn’t a competition, we’re just having a three-way conversation – even if I’m worse than them, we’ll have fun.”

Originality is something English prizes. For that reason, he says, he takes “my hat off to Mandla Mlangeni, because he’s addressing the trumpet as an instrument, and the social issues of our country. I’m not sure who else here is doing that the way Mandla does right now.”

And yet he admits there’s a paradox in pairing his admiration for originality with an album dominated by standards. “Look, it is my debut album. In America. I feel it’s good to have something out there where people can recognise the tunes, even if they don’t know me. When they buy music, people often go by familiarity – it’s like when you’re travelling you’ll order a hot dog to eat: nobody can mess up a hot dog.”

English hopes, though, to use the familiar foundations of the first album as a stepping-stone to others that are more personal.

“I’m not going to stop making albums,” he says, “even if the world is changing, and even cars don’t have CD players any more. Albums help me to not lose sight of why I do this: making music. It’s personal. I can hold this thing, and say: this is me and where I’ve got to; what I do and how I do things.”

Part of that, is staying rooted in South Africa, despite his current Atlanta base. “It’s not easy to lose sight of your roots, but somehow you can…when you’re living away, something’s gotta give. But I’ve sat myself down and asked myself what defines me as a South African in the States: is it composing or playing? And composing is becoming increasingly important.”

He’s thinking of a suite – “not necessarily my next album, but in the plan” – tentatively titled Sweet Shirl and Gorgeous George.

“My late grandfather, George Liederman – ‘Georgie Blue Eyes’ – passed on Easter Sunday five years ago. He was a modest old guy, always trying to make others happy. My grandmother was Shirley. The suite will have string arrangements, because strings, for me, are literally strings to the soul. You hear them and go: ‘Aah, yesss…’”

That, for English, is the secret to keeping home in his heart, even so far away. “Once you tap into something personal, there are no boundaries, no finishing line.”

 

 

 

What the papers should have told you about CTIJF

The most frequent question I’ve heard since returning from the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) last week has been: “Why haven’t we seen any reports on the jazz?”

I’ve been writing about the reasons for a long time.

This is no failure of marketing or PR, but a shameful failure of the media, who have eviscerated serious arts coverage from almost all the platforms where South African music fans seek it. There is little page-space; there are few reporters – and what editors demand from them is “showbiz”. Which tells audiences nothing about the music.

Whatever alleged “trend experts” theorize, readers still enjoy reviews. If they were at the performance, they enjoy testing their opinions against someone else’s. If they weren’t, they can enjoy some vicarious experience – and maybe decide whether it’s worth attending next time.

The blogosphere acknowledges and meets that need. Blog reviews vary hugely in quality, but even the worst are voraciously consumed. Newspapers, despite their pressing business need to please, win and hold readers, choose to ignore it.

So, what was it like, there in Cape Town, as we struggled to get past shameful political behaviour and insults to departed heroes to give a fair hearing to the music?

Musically, it was probably one of the best festivals ever. The CTIJF’s multiple stages offer a fan many festivals in one. Mine largely revolves around the Rosie’s and Molelekwa stages, where the most interesting modern improvised music (reductively labelled ‘jazz’: a tag that obscures as much as it explains) happens.

The march of the philistines

What made the headlines was the so-called ‘riot’ outside the separately-ticketed Rosie’s venue where more people than the seats could hold wanted to hear Thandiswa Mazwai. It wasn’t quite a riot – unlike 2006, where the same thing happened before the late Miriam Makeba’s performance. The extremely perilous 2006 situation prompted the introduction of separate Rosie’s tickets. While I don’t see why a token R5 ticket would not serve the same purpose as the current R30 one, this year, ticketing proved its worth. No-one was trampled, and festival security filled all the seats and diverted the overflow efficiently, assisted by improved crowd control at the tops and bottoms of escalators. Frustrated, Mazwai-addicted fans may not care about any of this – but if it’s neglected, people can die.

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Nduduzo Makhathini/Thandiswa Mazwai

For those inside Rosie’s, what happened after that was equally distressing. Mazwai’s act merited the Rosie’s stage because her current show features intimate, personal singing and a sensitive jazz trio. It may seem perverse to have to assert this, but such music, lovingly created by skilled artists, is for listening. This seems to have been lost on sections of the crowd, who howled, chatted, selfie’d, phoned and ignored the music. They made life hell for those who wanted to listen. Many of those philistines were in the seats reserved for sponsors.

The problem the festival still hasn’t solved

This highlights the festival’s most important remaining structural problem. There is one venue with the near-perfect acoustics certain acts demand: Rosie’s. It’s relatively small. There is one venue that can accommodate monster audiences – Kippie’s – and it offers poor sound, discomfort and (this year) dirt. (I hope those damp patches I had to sit in were beer.) But in Kippie’s, the uncaring part of Thandiswa’s crowd could have played amongst themselves at the back, while those who cared listened to the music at the front.

Maybe the extended CTICC will offer some better spaces next year. If not, the organisers must do something about Kippie’s.

Because such problems do get solved at Cape Town. Timekeeping is now like clockwork, making commuting between gigs a breeze. The Molelekwa stage has been plagued with sound leakage in previous years, the only barrier to other nearby gigs a set of flimsy curtains across glass walls. This year, ceiling and walls had been reinforced with acoustic panelling, and the stage finally did justice to the acts it hosted.

Yes, you are allowed to dance AND check a solo

All that said, what about the music?

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Rowdy, retro, rejoiceful, radical: Kamasi Washington

The festival this year reflected lines of descent, personal and musical. Nowhere was that clearer than in Kamasi Washington’s rowdy, retro, angry, rejoiceful Friday set in Kippie’s. His 2015 album, The Epic, celebrated the fiercely creative reunion of LA musicians who’d grown up together: community spirit and radical politics; Coltrane and funk; the church; rap & rhythm n’blues. Live, we got all of that and more: a performance that brought together those parts of the audience who wanted to move, and those who wanted to meditate, eyes tight shut, on a heavy solo. Washington’s set provoked and challenged people to move between the two categories – a unique moment.

Next day, at the record stall:

“Is this the music we heard last night? Why is it so expensive?”

“Yes – but the album has three hours of it.”

“You lie! Did you hear that? We have to buy this – it’s three times more!”

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Siya Makuzeni

Siya Makuzeni is a musicians’ musician, as evidenced by the number of fellow-artists in the Rosie’s audience for her set. But, like Washington, she touches hearts as well as intellects, with deep roots in Xhosa vocal tradition. Where the grandmothers of Lady Frere village multiply their voices through choral overtones, Makuzeni uses digital loops to build up a layered host of healing sounds. Close your eyes, and it’s like a sculpture by Ayanda Mji, encrusted with bird-headed women: all singing.

Bird calls; Mahanthappa answers

Overtones, this time on a brass instrument, returned with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. His audience may have suffered from a shamefully early Saturday slot at Rosies – a consequence of the Thandiswa dilemma above – but the music suffered not one whit. For me, this was the performance of the festival: it should have closed the night, not opened it.

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Rudresh Mahanthappa

This is probably the final Bird Calls tour, and the rapport (and palpable humour and affection) the group has built up over time spoke powerfully from the stage. Mahanthappa’s homage to Parker is clever music carried by technically superb playing. It certainly demands thought – but there’s cold cerebral and then there’s hot cerebral. Bird Calls is definitely the latter, and in that defiantly assertive – and witty – intellectualism it truly captures the spirit of bebop without any of the retro-cliched junk. Francois Mouton is a quiet bassist: his ruthlessly steady lines hold the flying ideas together, his solos spin out on multiple ideas of his own. There were machine guns and metronomes from drummer Rudy Royston, while trumpeter Adam O’Farrill speaks equally fluently in both the lyrical and the bratty, speed-merchant voices of his instrument.

O’Farrill kept making me think of Clifford Brown, and that reference point persisted in Cape Town trumpeter Darren English’s Molelekoa set. On his debut release, Imagine Nation, English covers a tune made famous by Brown, Cherokee, which he has called “the pinnacle song for getting your chops up”. But English is no copyist: what impressed on stage was his fluent personal voice, bright, contained energy, and the freshness of his own compositions. It’s a pity he’s getting his (deserved) breaks in the US – we need to hear more of him here. The other discovery of English’s set was the compelling slow burn of emotion in the solos of saxophonist Gregory Tardy; the audience wanted more of those, too.

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Mandla Mlangeni

In some ways it was a festival of trumpets. Back at Rosie’s, Mandla Mlangeni with the Tune Recreation Committee gave us melodies such as Bhekisizwe that we already love, but more new songs from TRC’s latest release, Voices of Our Vision, with powerful lyrics delivered by Zoe Modiga. It’s interesting how Mlangeni’s compositions take on an entirely different character in his different outfits. Here, fresh spices and shading were added particularly by the jagged abstract explorations of pianist Yonela Mnana and the spacious, Metheny-ish – but distinctly Capetonian – landscapes painted by guitarist Keenan Ahrends.

It wasn’t Clifford Brown but Mongs that Mlangeni called up in some angry-hornet solos, and it must have been painful, in the weekend’s political context, to play Bhekisizwe, homaging a father who died for values no longer visible. Plaintive, descending notes from that melody seemed to keep coming back, in segues and improvisations – or maybe we just needed to hear those notes, as we did to chorus with Mlangeni on Afrika Mayibuye? Yet Voices of Our Vision also put strong new writing on display, such as the processional of (I’m So) True, slowly gathering obsessive pace.

Swiss chops and South African forests

Skyjack’s trombonist Andreas Tschopp certainly has chops, and we heard more of him in this Swiss/SA band’s set that we do on the album. But in Skyjack, it’s not just the players you can make easy puns about who have them. Kesivan Naidoo, Shane Cooper, Kyle Shepherd and reedman Marc Stucki all marry virtuoso technique with open, slightly quirky imaginations to produce something that genuinely merits the overused accolade ‘unique’. Maybe it’s the combination of cold North and warm South – or maybe it’s the blend of distinctive individual visions with apparently seamless shared ones? On a new number, The Hunter, for example, the relentless driving pulse of the tune was all kinds of hunting and being hunted, until Cooper’s and then Shepherd’s solo took the twisty path through a forest that ultimately turned out to be Knysna.

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Skyjack take a bow

My festival closed with Escalandrum. Tango without bandoneon and dancers might seem as unthinkable as bacon (or Easter) without eggs, but these literal – in the case of leader, grandson Daniel ‘Pipi’ Piazzola – and spiritual descendants of tango pioneer Astor Piazzola made it work. Instead of watching flamboyant pasos and castigados, our ears tune to the delicate appeal of Astor’s compositions (Megadeath guitarist Marty Friedman has called them “shameless pop melodies”), and the scope they offer for imaginative, sometimes anarchistic, jazz improvisation. Pipi Piazzola has talked at length about his fascination with claves (the Latin rhythm patterns that overdetermine conventional meters ) and in this bandoneon-free zone, without that particular voice on top, listeners are drawn into his complex drum patterning. It’s a reminder that in Buenos Aires, African immigrants were among the working-class portenõs who built tango culture, and that tango, like the rest of the jazz family, has its share of African roots.

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Escalandrum

With so much good music to hear, the artists who stay most vividly in the memory have something important in common. It isn’t just that they played superbly – everybody this year did that. It’s that they also had something important to say.