Cape Town Jazz Festival 2018: the good, the bad and the ugly

In music, this year gave us more of the first than ever – but some snags persist and there was one truly philistine moment

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Aus Tebza Sedumedi and Hotstix Mabuse of the Liberation Project

Plus ça change, plus ce’st la même chose. Or, as Dexter Gordon playing Dale Turner put it in Round Midnight: “Same old shit.” Just like 2017, CTIJF 2018 continues to surpass itself in terms of the range and quality of the jazz on offer.

Yes, jazz. The Twittersphere this year was infested with the usual whines about “not enough jazz” – but with Nicholas Payton, Vijay Iyer, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Shane Cooper, Feya Faku, Nicky Schrire, Siya Makuzeni, Themba Mokoena – and more, and more – it’s hard to understand just what the hell they were talking about. And, just like 2017, the media failed to tell readers about almost any of it, focusing instead (where it gave any coverage at all) on Afro-pop and hip hop acts. Perhaps the latter might explain the former..?

Also just like 2017, there are so many choices for a listener to make that the only festival I can tell you about is mine, and yours might have sounded quite different. (One act – Vijay Iyer – had two shows, and doing that next year for just a couple more might, without compromising range and diversity, make the choosing less frustrating. Lots of people told me Trombone Shorty totally rocked, but I had three other acts to hear at the same time.)

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Mulatu Astatke

The good first (more of this than I could count or cover)

It would be patronising to the artists concerned and to your ears to simply list names and say how well they played. That, at this festival, is a given.

But the festival isn’t just about the concerts, and I can rarely remember a year when the daytime musicians’ master classes were as consistently useful and informative as this year. Mulatu Astatke’s band provided illuminating illustrations of the modes and scales that makes Ethiopian music sound so distinctive: the workshop opened up the engine of the beautiful flying machine that soared on Saturday night. Nicholas Payton – whose blogging sometimes suggests a prickly personality – was honest, self-effacing and witty about his music and his life. Miles Mosley held even non-bass-players fascinated by the story of how he changed up his axe, and revolutionised the sound of his music. “I didn’t realise technical stuff could be so interesting,” said one attendee afterwards. Perhaps if more media had attended these master classes, they’d have had real stories to write.

At the airport and on the plane, ungodly early the morning after, I heard more people talking about Astatke and his Ethio-jazz ensemble than any other act. That was a result both of superb musicianship and surprise – the festival had undersold, and the media completely ignored, the importance and creative power of this veteran and learned African jazzman. He’s a formidable instrumentalist; his ensemble – including onetime Taiwa Molelekwa collaborator, trumpeter Byron Wallen – equally so, and the music combines danceable groove, highly intelligent solos and a heterophony of rhythms, as well as stuff that makes you think. If you’re listening through Western ears, the music goes nowhere you’d expect. But because it’s jazz, it offers an equally fresh take on the Ethiopian modes: its business is busting envelopes. Wallen, reedman James Arben and the astounding arco cello of Shanti Jayasinha added highly distinctive voices. If Black Panther wanted a unique African soundtrack, rather than pop music, they should have looked here.

There were powerful storytellers everywhere, with and without words. Vocalist Nicky Schrire’s narrative power played off reedman Chris Engel’s eloquent lines in an intelligently curated programme that ranged from the singer’s own works to Beatenberg and Busi Mhlongo. Schrire might not, at first glance, seem to have much in common with Sibongile Khumalo, but like Khumalo she’s doing important work growing an authentic indigenous vocal repertoire that talks about us – and then singing it shrewdly and sweetly.

Guitarist Keenan Ahrends is unashamedly a storyteller – he called his album Narrative – and the gentle mutuality of his ensemble told the story he needed: “Music has colours and textures, and those have emotions attached…our improvisations allow us to play those emotions.”

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Feya Faku

A Feya Faku gig always has stories: his power as both composer and player lies not only in mastery of his instrument but in offering balm for the soul: not from a place of easy comfort, but from a place of history and hope shared with his listeners. This time there were many new tales – Faku seems to be composing a lot these days – including the moving ballad Gratitude for the late Hugh Masekela, who gave him a horn when his own two were stolen.

Stories of our history came, too, from both the Liberation Project and Louis Moholo-Moholo. The former united Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, Dan Chiorboli, Roger Lucey, Tebza Sedumedi, Tony Cedras and more, to revisit and revision songs of solidarity and struggle from around the world: the South African acoustic edition of a larger international ensemble whose album will drop in mid-May. The music was stirring – lovely to hear Cedras playing trumpet again, and Mabuse’s flute-playing is better than ever – but we’ll need to wait for the album to hear its full character. “It’s the intention of the music-makers,” asserted Mabuse, “that gives this music the power to question and challenge.”

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Louis Moholo-Moholo

Moholo-Moholo’s 5 Blokes 1 Doll (which was actually seven musicians, gender irrelevant, including two powerful bass-players) gave us a masterclass in deconstructing our standards. There was hot, fierce joy in the set: Makuzeni growling, bellowing, roaring and scatting on voice and ‘bone, Nhlanhla Mahlangu pouring out incandescent soul and Kyle Shepherd’s piano as percussive as Moholo-Moholo’s drums (with his solo on Yakhal’Inkomo honouring the spirit of Lionel Pillay, but offering a radically new vision). It was like being in London’s 100 Club circa 1980 – but not. Because the music was home and this was all fresh – personnel, arrangements, and the master-drummer’s own sound – and because, well, “you think you know me…but you’re never gonna know me”.

Nduduzo Makhathini and Inner Dimensions brought together Swiss, Austrian and South African musicians, and reintroduced reedman Linda Sikhakhane, who’s been away studying. Makhathini’s voice concepts – call and response; church-style antiphonal shouts; dark chanson from Anna Widauer – are becoming more intriguing on every outing. The pianist showed how, for him, the stage was “a place where a new language can be constructed.”

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Vijay Iyer with Wadada Leo Smith

Already fluent in their  language – born of years of intense collaboration – the Vijay Iyer Sextet offered interplay and vision that was powerful, absorbing and – in every sense – moving. The music of Far from Over (as in “the struggle is…”) is to hold your breath for, and to help you breathe freer. Tensions were built and resolved; questions asked but not always answered; pulses speeded and slowed. The sounds were dense with ideas and beauty, but because drummer Marcus Gilmore is a master of cerebral groove, we didn’t freeze in our seats either. How Iyer’s second set had to end (see below) was tragic.

Freshness came to the fore when some players – Ahrends, pianist Bokani Dyer, reedman Sisonke Xonti, bassist Shane Cooper, drummer Kevin Gibson – appeared in more than one ensemble: sometimes as leader and then sideman. Just because you’d heard them once never meant you could predict what they’d do the next time out, except that it would be equally apt, accomplished, and compelling. And there was freshness too in the people we’d never heard before and want to hear again: the transnational collaboration of The Surge where trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni found some very different musical conversations to have – with fiery guitarist Jan Kruzliak, for example, lyrical kumous (Kyrghiz fretless lute) player Aissana Omorova and the guembri (Gnawa plucked lute) groove of El Mehdi Qamoum.

The bad (mostly mundane and predictable)

More sad than bad were the perennially empty seats in Rosie’s and Molelekwa reserved for sponsors, gaping like a gangster’s grin. If press barons and policy-makers can’t be bothered listening to superb local jazz talent, should we be surprised when they don’t effectively support it either?

There were a few time slippages (especially on the Molelekwa stage: 25 minutes for the Liberation Project) that made the neat dovetailing the programme promises impossible. The sound in the woolly, cavernous Kippie’s venue has certainly been improved, but it’s still not good enough. For a large ensemble like Astatke’s, the listening experience was much better than for Kamasi Washington in 2017 – but why did the players (especially the percussionist) need to keep demanding improvements in stage mic’ing and monitor sound, and why couldn’t we hear the leader’s vibes for the first bars of his opening solo? For Payton’s Afro-Caribbean Mixtape set, the sound snookered much of the intention. That’s an album with discourse: the digital slices of recorded words matter to the politics of the concept. Cottonwool mush ensured we couldn’t hear them. So what we got was a masterful, pan-diasporic dance set and astounding instrumental virtuosity (trumpet plus piano! Those claves!) – but with the discourse filleted out: a different album. Even on the normally excellent Rosie’s stage there were initial sound problems with the subtle, delicate and spellbinding sounds of Shane Cooper’s Mabuta.

The free concert in Greenmarket Square that precedes the main event is starting to feel tired. Back when CTIJF started, a few of the really big names were hosted early, so that those without cash for tickets got a genuine taste of all genres at the festival. The square rocked. These days, it’s filled with cover bands. It’s time for festival organisers to return to that early practice, and re-democratise what started out as an innovative, inspired expansion of access.

The ugly. Only one moment – but there had to be a better way

Iyer’s mid-evening set on the second night overran. Such was the absorbing intensity of the music – different from the first night; different again from the album – that the players lost awareness of limits. (That’s what good jazz does.) The music was cooking and the audience loudly yelling for more. The set did need to wind down – but the insensitivity with which normally considerate MC Eric Alan closed it made the whole Rosie’s audience shudder. His voice cut into the sound. His presence invaded Iyer’s space while the musician still had his hands on the keys. “Is this democracy? Will you let me say something?” asked Iyer. Alan equivocated. But all the pianist said was: “We had a lot more to say, but we don’t want to be unfair to our fellow musicians.” Then he acknowledged, as he must, his co-players, whose praxis had made that magic.

Did nobody backstage understand that these were highly experienced professionals, well capable of crafting a neat encore that would have allowed the set to end on good vibes and dignity? Instead, what happened was about as sensitive as breaking into somebody’s bedroom and dousing them with iced water while they’re having sex.

Faku’s Spirit Unit, following, launched into their own impressively tight, fast encore just as Alan and the stage staff were creeping forward, giving nobody the chance to stop them. I like to think that one was for Iyer.

 

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Gender & Jazz: Cape Town Public Debate Tuesday March 20

Two quotes from artists, both appearing at this year’s CTIJF:

“I’ve seen what that does to the audience, playing that groove. I love making the audience feel that way. Getting back to women: women love that. They don’t love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like musical clitoris. You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.” – ROBERT GLASPER

“Music is action: the sound of bodies in motion. When we hear a rhythm, we imagine the act that gave rise to it. Some call it neural mirroring, or empathy. Music and dance are linked in this way: bodies listening to bodies. If music has ever moved you, then you already know.” – VIJAY IYER

And if – in the immortal words of Louis Armstrong – you have to ask why one of those statements (both discussing pretty much the same thing) is deeply misogynist and the other one isn’t, well “then you’ll never know”.

Glasper mis-spoke. He has apologised, and so has his enabler, columnist & musician Ethan Iverson.

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Lil Hardin Armstrong

There’s as monstrous a failure of imagination in his statement as in the demands of the irritating groove bunnies of all genders who interrupt sets, loudly demanding musicians play only what they can dance to. At least as outrageous is the implication that imaginative soloing can’t move bodies. The wise and wonderful Sydney Mnisi playing at last night’s Voice reunion (more about that at the end) demonstrated that you can take a reed line to the Sun Ra asteroid belt of outer space and back and still get an audience swaying.

Such failures of imagination characterise sexism. The creep who gets way too close while mentoring a woman musician; the bandleader who demeaningly asks a trained woman instrumentalist “What songs do you know?”, the carpet auditioneers, leering commenters and bum-pinchers (“Where’s your sense of humour, girlie?”) and the solo hogs who just never make space for their female co-players, all share an empathy deficiency severe enough to warrant confinement in an institution. (Vibist Sasha Berliner has told some of those stories vividly at http://www.sashaberlinermusic.com/political-and-social-commentary-1/2017/9/21/an-open-letter-to-ethan-iverson-and-the-rest-of-jazz-patriarchy )

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Melba Liston

But that’s not all we’ll be discussing at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival Public Debate next Tuesday 20 March at 1:30 in the Artscape Opera Bar.

The gendered blinkers we rarely talk about also determine who plays jazz, what instruments they play and how their playing and composition are classified and discussed, including in the media. (And, let’s not forget, these blinkers oppress everybody whose music doesn’t fit the gender mould, whether nonconforming cis people, members of the LGBTIQ community, or people who refuse all labels. )

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Dorothy Ashby

The labels determine how the history of the music and the literature about it are written. In this country, pioneering work by Lara Allen (summarised in her introduction to the first edition of Chris Ballantine’s Marabi Nights ) allowed us the first insights into the key role played by women in the development of precursor musics on the vaudeville stages.

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Valaida Snow

For the USA, Sherrie Tucker’s Swing Shift and other books, as well as documentaries such as Lady Be Good (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-phpjXJZ08s ) and The Girls in the Band (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-phpjXJZ08s) begin to tell the story.

You probably already know of Lil Hardin Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams and Melba Liston – shame on you if you don’t – but if you doubt the breadth of the history of women instrumentalists in jazz, listen to the early sounds of Leona May Smith, Dolly Jones or Valaida Snow (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2ffobYKq8o ) and the jazz harp of Dorothy Ashby (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8zPorum2p0&t=11s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ojuz4XlxKmM ). If you think women have been absent from classical composition, check out Florence B Price (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=189GH0gUBd4 ) or the experimentalism of Julia Perry (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dK2TNTu3HB4 ). And, believe me, there’s more: much more.

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Julia Perry

It’s not accidental that these great but hardly known players and composers are women of colour, and not only because communities of colour were the wellsprings of the music. Exclusion and erasure are intersectional: they operate at the crossroads where race, gender, class and power intersect. That jazz studies ignores women is about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and how that plays out in the discourse of the field (see https://journals.cdrs.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2015/03/current.musicology.71-73.tucker.375-408.pdf ).

But whether your interest is the theory or the practice of the still-gendered world of jazz, come to Artscape next Tuesday 20 March at 13:30 and join in the debate.

Our panellists are performers, teachers and composers Nicky Schrire and Nomfundo Xaluva; Professor Nirvana Bechan who heads the Media Department of CPUT and, for the CTIJF Arts Journalism Programme, myself and writer Percy Mabandu. #We have voice. Let’s use it to make creative noise about these issues!

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The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

 

*******

It’s us, the listeners, who sometimes want bands and players to stay the same. Musicians themselves are forever growing, exploring, and taking new roads – and that’s a good thing. Last night at the Orbit, Voice reunited for a single, remarkable night. It was worth the ticket, and even the late start and the hour-long wait in a queue. (That tells you how popular the outfit were). It was clear, though, that this wasn’t going to be a night for nostalgiacs right from the moment Sydney Mnisi launched into his first solo on Scullery Department and invited John Coltrane and Archie Shepp into that back kitchen to chow with Kippie. Everybody brought all the journeys they’ve travelled in the last decade-plus back into the music; nobody sounds like their ten years younger selves any more. The playing was fierce, powerful and often hot with emotion, with jaw-dropping solos from Andile Yenana, Mnisi and Marcus Wyatt and calm, masterful drum work from Morabo Morejele holding the strong visions together. By the closer, Blues for Green (there were two encores after that, despite the midnight hour) Yenana had coaxed bassist Herbie Tsoaeli into one of those tight walking lines to recall midnight at another club, ten years ago. But the set also announced that if these players work together again – and the imagining was magical enough to make us hope they do – there will actually be no going back to those days and it’ll be another journey onward & outwards.

Fake News, ‘native’ content and the ethics of arts journalism

I receive emails like this three or four times a week. This is the most recent:

“Good Day,

I hope my e-mail finds you well and fab.

CONFIDENTIAL:

There’s a new […] TV show due to launch[…] for My Client […] and we were wondering if we can do a cover/ insert story with […]?

Details: […]

Suggested story angles & headlines: available on request

Kindly let me know if you’d be keen on this? We would be honoured to be featured on in (sic) your publication or cover.

Best…”

 I’ve removed the details to save the blushes of the person – they call themselves a ‘brand architect’ – who penned this. Otherwise, linguistic infelicities, bad grammar and all, this is the full message. The person hasn’t even bothered to discover who I am or whether I’m in any position to offer a ‘cover/insert story’, even if I’m so inclined.

But it represents a growing and disturbing trend. Advertising agencies broker deals with publications; the publication’s writers generate content based on the “suggested story angles and headlines” brewed up by the agency. Newsrooms are short of staff and resources; media houses need advertising revenue; many editors have abandoned the arts as an area worth serious journalistic coverage. So they grab and run with this offered “story”. Even if no payment changes hands – and there is no suggestion of payment above – an allegedly independent publication potentially allows an outside interested party to set its news agenda.

Often, payment does happen, but by a more indirect route. As Songezo Zibi, former Business Day editor, observed in the 2016 State of the Newsroom report (http://www.journalism.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/STATE-OF-THE-NEWSROOM-2015_2016_FINAL.pdf ): “Instead of selling space in our titles we’re now selling content, meaning as editors we have to sell advertising to clients and usually with a promise of positive editorial coverage.” (The Press Ombud’s Code requires paid content to be labelled as such – but when that specific story is not paid for, merely ‘suggested’ and accompanying advertising elsewhere, the situation becomes much greyer. And when it’s happening in an area of news that many editors don’t respect as such..?

But why, you may wonder, does this matter? After all, it’s only a puff about a new TV series.

First, it’s part of the pervasive creep of external agenda-setting and bought news bedevilling all our media, and brought to light when Bathabile Dlamini’s then-Ministry bought a praise song for her on an SABC station (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-01-17-social-development-has-allegedly-paid-sabc-r500000-to-interview-bathabile-dlamini-but-no-ones-talking/#.Wqjkor1ub5s ).

Secondly, however ‘trivial’ you may consider the subject matter, this is the insertion of fake news into the media. The series may be so run-of-the-mill that it contains absolutely no news worth wasting page space on. Or it may be garbage. Or there may be real news lurking there, which this suggested publicity is designed to mask: presenters haven’t been paid; reality footage may have been (more) faked (than usual); a dozen other possibilities. (Additionally, if an agency genuinely has a powerful story, that agency should write it and send it out as their release. If it’s really news, it’ll get picked up.)

And, thirdly, of course, TV programmes are not trivial (after all, they are watched by millions). They contain multiple potentially engaging and important stories: about their discourse, process, economics and more. The same is true of any arts topic or event.

Attempts to set the news agenda by interested parties aren’t trivial either. Whenever anybody – be it an advertising or PR agency, a commercial company, a government department or some unholy alliance of these – offers journalists “news angles/headlines”, or guidance on the best way to cover something, the shit-detectors of those with an interest in press freedom should blare. Those who pay the piper invariably hope to call the tune.

Arts coverage, currently the neglected orphan of the newsroom, is particularly vulnerable, because editors no longer care to see the story possibilities in it (and not just for the arts pages), and no longer have budget for the specialist writers who can.

So, no, Ms ‘brand architect’. Your email does not find me “fab”. And as for the offer of “news angles/headlines” – thanks, but I’ll pass.

Trio Grande: a new outfit to watch

Anybody nostalgic for the moments of fierce conversational intimacy that characterised the music of Paul Hanmer’s Trains to Taung should have been at the Orbit last night for the debut of Trio Grande: Paul Hanmer, Feya Faku & Louis Mhlanga. It was rich with that kind of warm, thoughtful musical interaction, with some fabulous new material too – Paul Hanmer’s A Trip to the Beats demonstrated multiple and complex ways to approach groove-led material. If Mhlanga’s Zvinoshamisa already moves you to tears, you’ll need a box-full of Kleenex for the version with Faku’s solo added. Grande indeed…

God’s emeralds: Voice sounds again

In its early 2000s heyday, it was probably the best outfit in Joburg: a supergroup whose members went on to have stellar careers. It shaped, for many, the quintessential identity of the venue where it was resident and created standard-worthy material. But it never got quite as famous as it deserved, and the venue’s recent biography barely mentions it. What was it? Voice.

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Voice at the Bassline: (l to r) Yenana, Mnisi, Tsoaeli,Wyatt, poet Sandile Dikeni, Morojele. Photo: © Oscar Gutierrez @www.oscargutierrez.com 

 

A dozen years on, on Saturday (March 17th) Voice reunites for what promises to be a unique night as part of the Orbit Fourth Movement anniversary celebrations (http://www.theorbit.co.za/program-calendar/ ). The group comprises Sydney Mnisi on reeds, Marcus Wyatt on trumpet, Andile Yenana on piano, Herbie Tsoaeli on bass, with initially the late Lulu Gontsana, and subsequently Morabo Morojele, on drums.

Voice held a long-running residency at the old Bassline in Melville, and its rhythm section was the rhythm section of choice for a stellar selection of visiting players, South African and overseas. That’s not a little part of its secret: only via the kind of sustained working together that residencies facilitate can artists grow the seamless, almost telepathic understanding of one another’s approaches that Voice demonstrated.

Voice sounded promise of all the things the players have become in the years since: Wyatt’s flexible lyricism and quirky anarchy; Yenana’s demonstration of how beautifully Tyner-ish spacey harmonies transmigrate to Africa; Tsoaeli’s switchback marriage of precise walking lines and unchained imagination; Mnisi’s reed shout of hot soul, hard bop and anguish. Drummer Morojele (also an accomplished development scholar), subsequently moved his music into words in the powerful and beautifully crafted novel How We Buried Puso (https://www.amazon.com/How-Buried-Puso-Morabo-Morojele/dp/1770090983 ), where, if you read it aloud, the rhythm patterns of his sticks still sound sinuous and sweet.

Vol 1

The group release two albums during their too-brief life together. The first, the 2001 Quintet Legacy Volume One (https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/quintet-legacy-vol-1/1203539950) featured Gontsana on drums. There may be jazz listeners today who weren’t around to know first-hand quite how fine a drummer he was: mercurial, subtle, terrifyingly clever. Listen to the tracks Sinivile and Blues for Green to hear two sides of his skill, the twisty and the straight-ahead. Wyatt’s still playing the song Sweet Anathi today, but here you can hear it not long after it was born.

The second album, the 2003 Quintet Legacy Volume 2: Songs for our Grandchildren (https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/quintet-legacy-vol-2-songs-for-our-grandchildren/1203193403 ) features two compositions by legendary reedman Kippie Moeketsi, Scullery Department and I Remember Billy, and one by guitarist Allen Kwela, the spiritual You Are the Way, as well as originals from the band members. But the standout track – a fitting companion piece to I Remember Billy, another of the most beautiful jazz ballads ever written here – is Mnisi’s Ida, written in memory of his mother, who died while the recording was being made.Vol 2

The second album marks an important moment in South African jazz. It stands on the cusp when post-liberation homages to the jazz past reached their zenith. The bracing playing and fresh visioning on both the tributes and such unashamedly retro originals as Tsoaeli’s sprightly Days Mandulo and Mnisi’s Syd’s Dilemma recall the “dash of lime” that Todd Matshikiza invoked when describing the birth of African Jazz. But that mid-2000s moment was also the point when younger music college graduates were starting to establish the next wave of new sounds – and it was into that space that Voice’s members moved as teachers, composers and leaders of their own projects.

But before that they still created magic evenings at the old Bassline – once, I remember, playing close to midnight through a power cut: candle-shadows on the tables and an extended, seamless, unplugged set where it was impossible to spot the joins between Trane, Tyner and McGregor and the band’s raising of those and more spirits in their own work.

The blurb for Voice posted this week on the Orbit website – possibly serious, possibly ironic – emphasises the veteran status of all its musicians today. But as re-listening to the two albums – one 17 years old; the other 15 – demonstrates, age isn’t relevant except as it is to a vintage wine: flavours enrich, deepen and acquire burnished layers of complexity.

The headline for this column comes from Dudley Moloi’s poem on the liner of the first album. It still fits the music.

“Jazz improvisation is about digging/subliminal jewels on the run/Like your whole life depends on it/ You search in frustration/ (…)/Most of them are lost in the spur of the moment/ in the deep dark recesses of your soul/ If you are lucky, they resurface/ And grace your soul like borrowed wealth/God’s emeralds.”

Voice resurface on Saturday night. Don’t miss them.