The wealth of keyboard talent South Africa can now draw on is underlined by the announcements just out for both the the year’s remaining mega jazz festivals: The Standard Bank Jazz Festival at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, 28 June-7 July (http://sponsorships.standardbank.com/groupsponsorship/Arts-&-culture/National-Arts-Festival/Grahamstown-Jazz ) and the 21st edition of the Joy of Jazz in Johannesburg, 27-29 September (https://www.joburg.co.za/21st-anniversary-of-the-standard-bank-joy-of-jazz/ ). At both, it’s pianists who dominate the line-ups.
Grahamstown as usual, offers a perfectly judged soundscape of what’s happening in South Africa now, leavened with enough interesting overseas acts to add novelty. Thandi Ntuli’s Rebirth of the Cool, the McCoy Mrubata/Paul Hanmer partnership, Marcus Wyatt’s Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra, the UCT Big Band under Mike Campbell and Nduduzo Makhathini together offer a broad sweep through the history of the past 30-odd years, right up to tomorrow. Andile Yenana brings out the wonderful but far too infrequently heard Umnqgonqgo Wabantu, this time with Swiss guests – part of a celebration of 12 years support for Grahamstown jazz from Pro Helvetia. Afrika Mkhize launches a new project with vocalists Amanda Tiffin and Zenzi Lee Makeba. Given his work with the late Miriam Makeba, and the family gift (father Themba too) for superb vocal arrangements, that set could be very interesting.
Jazz history is further underlined by a project helmed by writer Percy Mabandu – a multimedia celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Winston Mankunku’s Yakhal’inkomo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=be0XeYghZfo ) with music crafted by Yenana, Shane Cooper, Linda Sikhakhane, Sisonke Xonti and Ayanda Sikade. (Why, incidentally, is Grahamstown the only prominent place that truly historic anniversary is being noted?)
The away team this year features Norwegian saxophonist Petter Wettre’s tribute to the music of Michael Brecker, and a trio led by US pianist Aaron Goldberg, who is perhaps best known here as the pianist accompanying Ravi Coltrane on his South African visits. Goldberg brings with him bassist Matt Penman (SF Jazz Collective) and veteran drummer/percussionist Leon Parker, whose renaissance in live jazz after a decade and a half in France immersed in other types of improvised projects is as much cause for celebration as Goldberg’s visit (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4CV2Yk3yKQ ).
Joy of Jazz promises some great names, including saxophonist David Sanborn , pianist Diane Schuur (in duo with Thandi Ntuli), and singer Cassandra Wilson reprising the Coming Forth By Day material she presented so movingly in Cape Town three years ago. Some acts are certain to please. Keyboardist, singer (and Miles Davis and John McLaughlin alumnus) Joey de Francesco appears in the company of Japan’s top bass player Kengo Nakamura. There are tributes to two trumpeters: Louis Armstrong (with an ensemble including Wycliffe Gordon, Nicholas Payton and more); and Hugh Masekela (with Feya Faku, Sydney Mavundla, Mandla Mlangeni, Spha Bhembe and others including Barney Rachabane and Khaya Mahlangu). Given enough rehearsal time for the collaboration to gel, the Masekela tribute could be quite remarkable, given such a line-up.
For three South African pianists, there’s challenging new company. In a set titled Piano Play, Bokani Dyer and Kyle Shepherd work with improviser Amina Figarova, last at Joy of Jazz in 2014. The two South Africans have previously created stage magic together; Figarova will bring something different to the mix. Nduduzo Makhatini, meanwhile, teams up with Americans bassist Michael Bowie and saxophonist Azar Lawrence: that one offers potential fireworks – though coming from a different musical place, Lawrence’s Trane-ish voice (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aKwgW5wJFY) could offer similar power and passion to that Makhathini found with the late Zim Ngqawana.
An idiosyncratic choice is the New York Round Midnight Orchestra: a Dutch ensemble paying affectionate tribute to the sounds of Harlem in the 1940s. The show has been a massive hit on stages in the Netherlands – but it could also open interesting conversations about the place of such nostalgic revivals (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vP9MDXXT0Mw ).
There’s an excellent selection of music from around the African continent: master percussionist Tlale Makhene with Swazi Gold; vocalists Buika (heard on Simphiwe Dana’s latest album), Mbuso Khoza and Oliver Mtukudzi. Yet while all these will no doubt be brilliant, they’re a taster course in the presence of somebody we should have heard long ago: Humberto Carlos Benfica (“Wazimbo”): the father of Mozambique’s marrabenta music.
Born in Gaza province in 1948, Wazimbo sang for and later led the Orchestra Marrabenta Star, and his 1988 song Nahulwana (night bird) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16Q9ISsWF2s ) even found its way to Hollywood. He’s probably going to be the surprise hit of the festival.