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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4 thoughts on “Cape Town Jazz Festival 2018: the good, the bad and the ugly

  1. Thank you for an amazing round up of the festival. I wasn’t able to make it this year so thank you. Your last section brought back bad memories for us….Moreira and his band went through the exact same thing in 2007 when Eric walked onto the stage mid-chord and stopped the show with no warning! Usually a 5 minute or 10 minute signal is shown to give the musicians time to finish up properly. We assumed it was because Terence Blanchard was on next and he was throwing a tantrum because we had hit our time. It was so abrupt and rude that it left the musicians completely perplexed and confused. Mark Fransman was in the middle of a solo! The audience were very unhappy.

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  2. Thank you so much for this fantastic review. You have the beautiful ability to both inform us and make us feel like we were there. Which I wish of course even more!

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  3. Thank you for a most beautiful review. I flew all the way from Lagos and I did have a blast. The balance of jazz and non jazz artists was about right. That argument seems to run forever because it helps some jazz fans come across as purists. The truth is that mainstream acts help draw the crowd and make the festival more commercially sustainable.
    Iyer’s sets were worth the festival pass on its own. I hope we see him again soon. You are right about Feya certainly seems to be composing a lot these days and his set was as excellent as expected. However, his recorded albums are so scarce and and almost unavailable for buyers either on the web or in physical shops. I really hope he will do something about availability of his excellent works. The Surge was a pleasant surprise.

    Thanks Sisi Gwen for your excellent contributions. I have found lots of gems from your writings. Cheers

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