Saxit: only four reeds but many more interesting ideas

It was just over two years ago that seven-year-old Cape Town-based saxophone quartet Saxit launched their self-titled debut EP (http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/Saxit ): a short, tantalising glimpse of what a saxophone quartet can do. Two years on, and the outfit is back with an 11-track album: Système Diabolique ( https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/systeme-diabolique/1336326843), whose promotional video you can view here: ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2I6Epzpmphs )

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This time, soprano/alto saxophonist Joel Benjamin, altoist Jade de Waal, tenorman Simon Bates and baritone and flute player Gareth Harvey have stretched their musical horizons wider. The material includes poetry from Qaqamba Mbili, Allison-Claire Hoskins and Emile XY, drama, songs from Maya Spector and Monique Hellenberg, and compositions from Randy Brecker, Bheki Mseleku, Abdullah Ibrahim, the two singers, Harvey himself and Martin Wolfaardt. Genres stretch beyond jazz to contemporary chamber music and, in the case of Hellenberg’s song, something very close to smoochy Rn’b.

Despite the existence of the earlier EP, in fact, Système Diabolique feels a lot like most debut albums: a sampler of everything the outfit has to offer. If you liked the funky feel of Peewee Ellis’s Chicken on Saxit’s previous outing, you’ll probably enjoy the opener: Brecker’s 34th n’Lex. If your tastes veer more towards new music, Wolfaardt’s Brain Meltdown and Harvey’s title track (with thoughtful soloing from de Waal) may appeal more. If South African repertoire is your interest then the closer, Ibrahim’s Chisa (with a gorgeous solo from Benjamin paying stylistic homage to Robbie Jansen, Basil Coetzee and that whole era of Cape Town jazz) will definitely hit the sweet spot.

Accompanying poetry always poses challenges for instrumentalists: do you provide embellishments to underline the mood, Greek-chorus-like commentary, or simple punctuation with the reed equivalent of vocal doo-wops? Saxit deploy all these tactics and more, creating, for example, a bitter, foreboding commentary on Hoskins’ Sobukwe/Mandela poem Burning Messiah, and mirroring the emotions of Mbili’s feminist call to resistance, Rise. 

The most texturally interesting  track is the collaboration with Black Noise veteran XY on Story of the Wind. There’s a gentle sonic pun there, because ‘wind’ is not only the theme of the English/Afrikaans verses, but also the power behind the instruments. As well as the melodic sax sounds we know, the reeds provide the blowing gusts of a Cape SouthEaster, the fluting of Khoisan pipes, the songs of birds, and clacking instrument keys that might be blown leaves or dancers’ leg-rattles. If I had to pick a favourite track, Story of the Wind would probably be mine.

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Like their earlier outing, Saxit’s Système Diabolique is finely played. What makes a saxophone quartet successful, though, is not merely strong, accurate playing. What we listen for is both the individuality of the different sax voices – and that comes through clearly on this album – but also a collective voice that can give the ensemble its own identity. In both adventurous programme choices and in the very evident respect and enjoyment each player shows for the others’ space and style, Saxit are staking their claim to a very distinctive space in South Africa’s soundscape.

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Saxophone quartets around the world, like Saxit, make very interesting music indeed. Here are a few others you might also enjoy:

 

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