The first batch of artists for the 2018 Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) was announced on Tuesday, and, even on this showing, it’s clear the event will offer a festival recognisable as ‘jazz’ even by the most hardcore purist.
It’s misleading to look at the bill of fare for all five stages and whinge about the “lack of jazz”. Good music of all genres – with a few tempting morsels of jazz – happens everywhere, but the jazz festival mainly happens upstairs, on the Rosies and Molelekwa stages. That is made possible in business terms by the massive footfall those other multi-genre offerings attract to the Cape Town International Convention Centre, and plenty of audience members these days prefer to listen across the boxes.
Sometimes there’s an aberration: a jazz name predicted to attract a big audience will be placed on the Kippies stage with its difficult, cotton-wool acoustics, leaky sound from outside and grubby, grungy, noisy ambience. Maybe they’ll get that stage right in 2018 too..? We can hope.
It’s never just about the visitors in Cape Town. The South African names are equally important and it’s an assertion of the depth and uniqueness of South Africa’s jazz tradition that our own musicians, as much as the Americans, can draw on elements from both history and tomorrow to craft distinctive – and instantly recognisable – South African stories. This year’s first crop of named artists are no exception, ranging from the measured, thoughtful, lyric beauty of veteran trumpeter Feya Faku (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhdna8sjL9o ) to the “doorway between the waking and dream worlds” opened by bassist Shane Cooper’s Mabuta (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaQN-ks8Jyk ).
Saxophonist Sisonke Xonti’s Iyonde bring a full, rounded saxophone sound (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LuD8bYD23Q ) and intriguingly diverse compositions. Nicky Schrire offers a jazz voice with superb narrative skill – however brief the songs, the storytelling never fails to move (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhdna8sjL9o ). Guitarist Keenan Ahrends conveys in his music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gc6qpMJQzos )what I’ve previously called “an almost magical sense of landscape, space and movement.” Another guitarist, Billy Monama, brings his Grazroots Project, which unites veteran guitar maestro Themba Mokoena with multigenerational partners including Lwanda Gogwana and McCoy Mrubata for a fresh take on historic South African sounds (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jYLioF-Waw ). Pianist (and now an increasingly interesting scholar too) Nduduzo Makathini is so prolific a composer that he’s certain to offer a few surprises from his IsiZulu-inspired yet still many-voiced keyboard.
And yet, despite all these riches, pride of place must belong to the man the UK Guardian has hailed as a “drum colossus”: Louis Moholo-Moholo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVw2XMOOdFo ). Long a hero of the European free music scene, the 77-year-young Moholo still too rarely gets the big stages at home that his musical intellect and achievement merit. In Cape Town, with pianist Kye Shepherd, bassist Bryden Bolton, trombonist/vocalist Siya Makuzeni, soulful reedmen Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Abraham Mennen, he could well give us the set of the festival.
If one strand unites the 2018 visiting artists, it’s a kind of historical eclecticism: drawing on recognisable jazz traditions (and there will be a lot of New Orleans around) but in energetic dialogue with elements from across the genre board. Trombone Shorty’s Parking Lot Symphony (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3a3RxVTuNc )debut for Blue Note shares objectives with Monama’s Graz Roots – and, indeed, it would be wonderful to hear the two in dialogue about foregrounding historic music as fresh and relevant. Trumpeter Nicolas Payton is these days gathering as much attention for his challenging writing (https://nicholaspayton.wordpress.com/ ) as for his playing, but his latest double, Afro Caribbean Mixtape (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-g5oNRIgIeU )makes it clear that the horn still rules – this time, in some less usual company including DJ Lady Fingaz.
Kamasi Washington’s bassist, Miles Mosley (Abraham), will be touring material from his own album Uprising: a release infused with the spirit of jazz-funk, with the groove carrying not a few unsuspecting good-time listeners into some tough, imaginative modern jazz territory (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AyP6RVikCc ). That’s just one example of the way the juxtaposition of those elements can act as – to use Shane Cooper’s word – “doorways” into new musical experiences.
That approach is currently so pervasive – and so effective – that it serves as its own refutation of pianist Robert Glasper’s truly dumb-ass, sexist statement earlier this year that “women don’t love a lot of soloing [so you have to search for the] musical clitoris to give them entrance to jazz…otherwise they’d never cross paths with it.” Groove bunnies are everywhere, and of all genders – and, to be fair, Glasper did apologise subsequently.
But if you want to call him out on it all again, he’ll be in Cape Town too, in an outfit that brings together many of our favourite visitors from past years in a new combination: R+R=Now. His co-conspirators comprise trumpeter Christian Scott, reedman Terrace Martin, bassist Derrick Hodge, keys and beats master Taylor McFerrin and drummer Justin Tyson. With so many creative imaginations striking sparks off one another, R+R=Now is likely to be another gig of the festival – although, being female, I guess I’ll be expected to leave during the solos…
Two names remain that should have headed Cape Town bills years ago. The first is a veteran of equal stature to Moholo: the father of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke. The 76-year-old vibraphone, congas and keyboard player gave a too-brief gig at Wits in 2010 with sidemen including Sydney Mnisi, Herbie Tsoaeli and Ayanda Sikade. He’s lectured extensively across the US and worked with international outfits including London experimentalists the Heliocentrics. His early recordings gave Ethiopia its overseas jazz profile. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=am_VFEjkzHk ) But he has also singlehandedly pioneered a modern musical vision based on East African traditions through recordings and scholarly work, and challenged the crude dichotomy which gives Africa credit for rhythm and Europe the prizes for everything else. When I spoke to him in 2010, he asserted (https://mg.co.za/article/2010-09-10-bringing-jazz-home-to-africa ): “My aim is for Africa not only to be portrayed as contributing rhythm, but also contributing to the science of music.” Citing the Ethiopian Gamvo tribe, which has classified seven different voices, and the Derashis with their 12-tone music played on bamboo pipes, he said: “They’re the scientists of our music, living in the middle of five-tone territory. At Berklee we were told how Charlie Parker used 12 tones and diminished scales to develop bebop. But was it Parker or was it Africa?”
An equally iconoclastic campaigner is long-demanded pianist (and more), multiple music award-winner, scholar and Harvard professor, Vijay Iyer. Iyer’s childhood musical education was on violin, and his first university studies in physics and mathematics; he is largely self-taught on piano. His musical collaborations have stretched from AACM veterans such as Roscoe Mitchell to hip-hop artists, through jazz, contemporary classical and mixed-media performances. Many have had an explicit as well as an implicit political discourse. Iyer’s most recent outing, for ECM, is Far From Over, with a sextet including saxophonists Steve Lehman and Mark Shim, cornettist Graham Haynes, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcmMrLUTUxM ). If, like me, you relish subtle soloing that takes constant sideswipes at your expectations, this has to be another top pick.
Iyer probably merits the last words, reminding us about why even a commercial jazz festival can embody more than the priced consumption of performance. For him, jazz is “the history of a people, and the history of ideas, a history of defiance, a history of unity, a history of joy and transcendence — and also a history of responding to conditions of oppression and terror. So I always think about my relationship to that history as a South Asian-American, and I try to honour that history while still being myself.” (https://www.npr.org/2017/08/26/545890108/vijay-iyer-on-jazz-s-history-of-defiance-his-influences-and-playing-in-a-sextet )…“You know, when I talk to my students about it, I kind of frame it as a history of community organizing. Because it was about people coming together in pretty dire circumstances, and – sort of against all odds – creating beauty and changing the world. You know? That’s really what it was. So, when understood in that way, there’s a lot to learn about what we must do today.”