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.
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.
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.
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.”