Skyjack’s The Hunter: latest episode of a long Swiss/SA musical history

When music scholar Veit Arlt spoke at the SAJE conference earlier this year, his speech was stuffed with memories of all the South Africans who’d played – during their years in exile, and since – on Swiss jazz stages. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that South Africa left its mark on Swiss jazz, or that many South African players – McCoy Mrubata, Afrika Mkhize and more – are still finding fruitful collaborations in what’s often stereotyped as merely a clean, cold, efficient country.

launch-poster_online-use-small.jpgAnother example is Skyjack, set to launch their second album at the Orbit this Friday and Saturday Nov 9 and 10. Comprising Swiss reedman Marc Stucki and trombonist Andreas Tschopp, plus South Africans bassist Shane Cooper, pianist Kyle Shepherd and drummer Kesivan Naidoo, Skyjack have been together for five years now, and their self-titled debut attracted plenty of attention, culminating in a gig at the 2017 Cape Town International Jazz Festival. This 2016 clip gives you some idea of how they sounded around then:

At CTIJF, they presented tracks from the first album plus some new material, including the rhythmically urgent Tschopp composition, The Hunter. Now, that track leads and provides a title for their second album, due for international release from Enja Yellowbird in early 2019. But before that, you can hear the music on Skyjack’s current national tour, which concludes at Joburg’s Orbit on November 9 and 10. Catch them discussing the tour and the band history on this ENCA news clip:

The Hunter is recognisably the same outfit – if you liked that sound, you’ll love this – and, as on the first outing, includes compositions from all the band members. But it’s not just a repeat performance with new tunes. There are still only five players, but the sound is often bigger, bolder and brassier, because of the amount of tight, richly-textured ensemble work. Sometimes, the sound is tougher too. I called Shepherd’s Hunter solo on that Cape Town 2017 stage a twisty forest walk; what he creates on the album (recorded a year later, in March this year) is far harder-edged and bluesier.

One of the mild complaints about the first Skyjack album was how little we heard of Cooper. He’s always such a collaborative, empathetic ensemble player that his distinctive bass sound walks out front too rarely. That’s remedied here, with more tracks offering space for his solos, especially Loom. On that track, his teamwork with Naidoo and conversations with the rest of the group weave sounds that spin away creatively from a starting point somewhere in drum n’bass. You could probably dance to it – if you were a really good dancer free of boundaries.

band image.jpg

All good jazz is a judicious blend of collaborative discipline and unchained imagination, and Skyjack do the mixing well. Shepherd’s Loueke (probably my favourite track) explores the feel of West African music, culminating in an almost kora-like piano break towards the end; embroidered with Naidoo’s intricate rhythm patterns and Tschopp’s work in the trombone’s higher register, where he can sound like a trumpeter. The drummer’s own Time with the Masters is a homage to all the forefather sticksmen who played with, on, inside and outside time – and if that makes them sound like wizards rather than musos, the simile is not unjust.

The album ends with Stucki’s Dayanous: a fast, hard-boppish theme with precise chorus work and solos joyfully flirting with risk. In feel, the tune invokes the kind of music made by the various Europe-based incarnations of the Brotherhood of Breath, some of that in Switzerland too. Not only is The Hunter a compelling album in its own right, it’s also another reminder of how many musicians – from here, and from there; then and right now – have sipped from and been inspired by that heady McGregor/Pukwana/Moholo/ Dyani heritage wine.


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