We live in the middle of some frustrating jazz contrasts. More startlingly fresh South African jazz is being made every year. Much is finding its way on to records that, when the international critics hear them, blow even their jaded minds away. But look at the bills for big jazz festivals (the recent Joy of Jazz, and the first announcements for next year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival) and you’ll see them dominated – apart from a handful of names – by conservatism and no apparent sense of what’s really happening.
And yet festival appearances do matter, even in a socio-economic context where most jazz fans increasingly can’t afford them. They offer a different stage, atmosphere and audience, and opportunities for national and international musical networking for both fans and players. Every live jazz performance is unique, and festival shows introduce artists to new listeners, and present them in a fresh frame even for their regulars.
Take Salim Washington, for example. His SA outfit, Sankofa, hasn’t yet featured at any major national festival, despite packing out club shows whenever it appears. We seem unappreciative of having a reed player who’s billed in his home country as a “jazz legend” performing and teaching in our midst. The paucity of club gigs outside Johannesburg (and the near-death of serious music journalism) means many people don’t know his work. Despite that, Washington is a diligent and energetic musician – he composes prolifically and plays wherever he can find a stage, and you can hear him at Johannesburg’s Orbit next weekend, on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 October in another of the multiple South African outfits he works with, Mandla Mlangeni’s inspiring Born to be Black (bookings: firstname.lastname@example.org ).
I was fortunate enough to access a live recording of Washington’s 25 January concert at the Jazz Gallery in New York, in a quintet in partnership with a US reedman we should also probably know more about, the richly soulful, adventurous altoist Darius Jones (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ud28OZ439w ).
That was a revelation. Although some of Washington’s original material (Elder Washington, The Light Within, and Uh Oh! (hear a 2012 version at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c7HH2Lprh8) was familiar from his Sankofa concerts, it assumed fresh colours and flavours with these US collaborators. Yayoi Ikawa’s piano solo on Elder Washington, for example, took us to a different church from the one you’ve heard Ndududzu Makathini visit during the tune. What’s always impressive is Washington’s facility on a range of reeds – oboe, bass clarinet and flute as well as tenor – and the first set contains a tribute to fellow poly-instrumentalist the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk’s tune A Stritch in Time (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmMZznQH6Ts ) is deceptively pretty and fiendishly difficult; Washington’s interpretation revels in both characteristics. What was also impressive about the gig was the way the New York audience and his fellow musicians embraced the South African material Washington introduced: his own new Afrika Love (shaped around a traditional isizulu music scale taught to him by Afrika Mkhize) and Mongezi Feza’s You Think You Know Me (But You’ll Never Know Me) – which sometimes crops up in the Born to Be Black playlist too. Maybe we can persuade Jones and Washington to release the gig recording as an album, so that more people can hear it?
Pianist Kyle Shepherd has been more fortunate with festival appearances (he was at Joy of Jazz in a triple-header with Bokani Dyer and Amina Figarova) but we still don’t hear as much of him as we should. And his music, these days, is taking some compelling directions. Last Thursday (18 October), he used the second half of the Centre for the Less Good Idea’s Collapsed Concert to present Voices : a work that encompassed the Centre’s magnificent Steinway grand piano, pre-recorded voices, and synthesised sounds.
It was a profoundly moving work, referencing, as Shepherd always does, history, community and memory: sewing together Khoisan heritage, the rolling left-hand of classic Cape jazz piano and the pianist’s own current lean modernism. This time there were some more poignant, personal memories too, through the recorded voice of Shepherd’s mentor the late Zim Ngqawana offering quiet reflections on jazz and freedom. Ngqawana’s voice became a choir of many sibilant voices asserting and retreating – the musical text enacting what the verbal text expressed – then flowing back into the syncopated Khoisan steps, which have themselves infused the jazz legacy of all the Cape’s communities.
The Boulez Second Piano Sonata that, in Jill Richards’ powerful, mercurial interpretation had formed the first half of the concert, had as one starting-point the alienated, industrialised, all-erasing violence of the Second World War: the sonata was completed in 1948. Boulez wasn’t writing programme music to “sound like” that, but mirroring it in his erasure of sonata form. Shepherd took another road, commandeering mass industrialised products – synthesised and recorded sounds dispersed via digital technology and metal machines – and giving them souls again.
Even if Shepherd plays the piece again, it won’t sound exactly the same. That’s why live music rules, and why our festivals need to be a lot more hip to the live innovations that South African jazz musicians are creating every day.