It’s that time of year again. On May 26, the South African Music Awards will be presented, amid the usual display of conspicuously ugly consumption and conspicuous musical ignorance. There is now only one jazz award, and it receives scant publicity; it’s a sideshow as the latest flash-in-the-pan rapper takes centre stage.
Together with a situation where many jazz ensembles self-release, that’s had a positive impact. Now they are no longer seen by big labels as a springboard for major sales, jazz nominations and awards have been going to artists actually working and respected within the genre, rather than to assiduously promoted but far more nebulous talents.
However, the task for selectors and judges becomes harder – without catalogues, how does even the most enthusiastic appreciator keep up with the multiple small releases appearing across the country?
This year’s nominees are a rather more eclectic selection than those of 2016.
Unsurprisingly, Thandiswa Mazwai’s Belede features (as it does in other categories): a thoughtful selection of South African jazz standards, with a sterling jazz rhythm section in the formidable persons of drummer Ayanda Sikade, bassist Herbie Tsoaeli and pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. That last artist also appears in his own right, for the album Inner Dimensions with Umgidi and One Voice. Steelpan player Dave Reynolds and veteran multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed are listed for Live in Grahamstown.
Completing the list are trumpeters Sydney Mavundla for Luhambo, and Darren English for Imagine Nation. Luhambo is perhaps the most straight down the middle South African jazz album in the selection in terms of its musical language, and Mavundla is an under-recognised player who honed his now formidable chops playing with every ensemble in town before assembling his own. The album demonstrates strong compositional talents too (and an unexpected singing voice reminiscent of Victor Ntoni) in the company of a committed ensemble including pianist Afrika Mkhize, drummer Peter Auret, bassist Ariel Zamonsky, reedman Sisonke Xonti and Swiss trombonist Andreas Tschopp.
Tschopp’s presence on that album, as well as the all-American ensemble working with English raise another question: how “South African” (and in what sense) does an album have to be to qualify and win? Now that the quality of South African players takes them into all kinds of distinguished playing company across the world, is it not possible to acknowledge that at the SAMAs too?
There are precedents: in 2010 Adam Glasser’s Mzansi took a SAMA with an ensemble featuring both UK and South African players and Glasser himself, while SA-born, is London-based. Given that precedent, it’s surprising, for example, that the stunning (Swiss/South African, but majority SA) Skyjack album has not featured on any lists. The most perfect exposition of South African jazz composing I’ve heard this year came on McCoy Mrubata’s Live at the Bird’s Eye – an archive recording with majority Swiss players, but an incandescently South African vision. The voices of our younger talents have never spoken more vividly together than on British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings’ Wisdom of the Ancestors, on which he is the only non-South African player.
There are other albums I’d have liked to have seen on the 2017 list. The omission of Siya Makuzeni’s sextet outing Out of this World is inexplicable – if the reason was the absence of hardcopy product (it’s currently only available as download) that speaks of a dinosaur attitude to the way the recording industry works today. It’s possible Lwanda Gogwana’s Uhadi Synth, and Gabisile Motuba’s Sanctum Sanctorium appeared too late for the entry cut-off, but if not, their absence is equally surprising. And I’d have picked Makathini’s Matunda ya Kwanza over Inner Dimensions – but that’s just an issue of personal taste.
Taste, of course, is why compiling lists is very different from picking “winners”. Playing jazz is not a zero sum game, and both the genre definition itself and the meaning of “best” are moot. Each of the musicians represented has their own story to tell; each story is different from, not better than, the others. If the SAMA list suggests a few new picks to jazz record buyers, it won’t have been in vain, even as it continues to tell us absolutely nothing about which player is “best”, or what in the jazz world that word might mean.
Other news that seems to have gone largely un-noticed recently has been the announcement of the line-up for the Johannesburg Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival at the end of September. This year, it is a significantly more conservative programme than March’s CTIJF offered, packed with reliably bankable names that will certainly (and deservedly) attract audiences, even though we’ve seen them before. Established South African stars include Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela, Selaelo Selota, Tshepo Tshola and Caiphus Semenya, Thandiswa Mazwai and Tutu Puoane – but also vocalist Zoe Modiga whose recent debut album suggests a very interesting singer/composer on the rise, and Standard Bank Young Artist bassist Benjamin Jephta. Stalwarts of the European scene include French vocalist Elizabeth Kontomanou and Dutch pianist Peter Beets. From America come singer Nnenna Freelon, Ramsay Lewis and Roy Ayers, bassist Christian McBride, reedmen Joshua Redman and Branford Marsalis, the Clayton Brothers – and, perhaps most exciting in the wake of their superb recording Perfection, the power trio of David Murray, Geri Allen and Terri-Lyne Carrington.
Finally, congratulations to trumpeter Etuk Obong, whose playing takes him between South Africa and Nigeria (as well as outside the African continent) who has just been awarded a place and a scholarship to further his music studies at Berklee!