Four things we learned in 2018

  1. Coltrane still rules

TraneDespite the bandwagon-jumping and often ill-informed writing that surrounded this mid-year release of a “lost” Coltrane album – the 1983 Both Directions at Once – there’s still no mistaking the technical skill and spiritual power of John Coltrane, as well as his enduring influence on saxophonists across the world – including here. The album instantly charted everywhere sales charts are still maintained. Some buyers may have bought it for irrelevant reasons of fashion or status, but if they listened to it even once, they must have learned something.

  1. “Placemaking” has arrived

The theory used to be about “clusters” and “cultural precincts”. Now the buzzword is “placemaking” – the spatial planning of public areas to build around, and on, existing social and cultural capital. See, for example, The upside for South African music, including jazz, is likely to be the integration of cultural planning into urban planning, and consequently some new venue spaces. The downside is the potential, already tracked in many cities worldwide, for heavily privatised placemaking to serve as a Trojan horse for gentrification. It’s the model on which New York’s SoHo District was colonised by elites.Mabon

Look at Maboneng, Braamfontein and more, and you can already see both tendencies. Creatives who moved in at low rents are now beginning to be squeezed to the margins, to pioneer fresh spaces as agents of gentrification, or squeezed out altogether. Homes and spots are segregated by affordability. Yet the newly developed areas also provide genuinely innovative creative activities and employment. There are still insiders and outsiders, but the societal fault lines differ from those previously drawn in the apartheid city. Skewed demographics are easily camouflaged by the surface democratic buzz of galleries, coffee shops, Sunday Markets and First Thursdays.

Even as we welcome new venues for the arts, we need to keep a critical eye on these other implications of placemaking. Poor and working people have the right to settle and socialise in the city at affordable rents and without the suspicious scrutiny of security guards, and to work there as more than service workers for rich patrons. That’s not going to happen without their voices – not only those of property developers and xenophobes – making a noise that’s heard in urban decision-making. Think about that when the elections come around.


  1. South African jazz keeps on getting better

It’s impossible to keep track of all the year’s new releases. Artists often publish their music independently, decent record stores no longer exist – have you visited the travesty that is Musica recently? – and, contrary to popular opinion, iTunes doesn’t have everything. But here’s a list of most, if not all, the SA jazz that has appeared in 2018, alphabetical by artist.portrait

Claude Cozens – Improvisation 2

Bokani Dyer – Neo Native

Reza Khota — Liminal

Vuma Levin/Theo Douboule – In Motion

The Liberation Project

Mabuta – Welcome to This World

Sibu Mash Mashiloane – Closer to Home

Carlo Mombelli – Angels & Demons

Gabisile Motuba – Tefiti Goddess of Creation

Thandi Ntuli — Exiled

Saxit – Systeme Diabolique

Ibrahim Kalil Shihab – Essence of Spring

Ayanda Sikade — Movements (almost impossible to find)

Skyjack – The Hunter

Thabang Tabane — Matjale

Ariel Zamonsky/Juana Pires – Entre dos Mundos


  1. We miss them even more when they’re gone

HughWe can’t begin to measure how much poorer the South African jazz scene is for the loss of the Poet Laureate of the nation, jazz (and much more) Keorapetse Kgositsile, trumpeter and activist Hugh Masekela, and unique guitarist, teacher and composer Dr Philip Nchipi Tabane.

The world jazz stage has suffered notable losses too. Among those who’ve left us:

  • World Saxophone Quartet founder and bari player Hamiett Bluiett
  • Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin
  • Latin jazz innovator, trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez
  • Village Vanguard jazz club co-owner Lorraine Gordon
  • Composer and trumpeter Roy Hargrove
  • Father of the Rn’B sax style, Big Jay McNeely
  • Neville Brothers saxophonist Charles Neville
  • Last Poets founder Jalal Mansur Nuriddin
  • Innovative bluesman Otis Rush
  • Pianist and composer Cecil Taylor
  • Trombonist Bill Watrous
  • Pianist and scholar of the African roots of jazz Randy Weston
  • Song stylist supreme Nancy Wilson

May the spirits of all rest in peace.

To everybody who reads this blog, let’s hope 2019 bring better times and more good sounds. See you next year.

Reza Khota Quartet: Liminal – players without borders

Second albums can be difficult. They’re probably most difficult for successful pop music artists, who may find themselves trapped by fan or label expectations into mining an increasingly stale vein of what had been fresh the first time around. But it can happen to jazz outfits too: incessant demands for more of the same often chained reedman Khaya Mahlangu when he was with Sakhile. (Now, older and less in the public eye, but unencumbered by those expectations, he astounds on every outing and it’s always fresh.)

Transm.jpgGuitarist Reza Khota and his Quartet established no such rigid confines on his first album, the 2013 Transmutation . The playlist ranged from his own and bassist Shane Cooper’s compositions to explorations of Hungarian classical composer Bela Bartok, and fellow guitarists John Mclaughlin and Jimi Hendrix.

Five years on, and the same team – Khota, Cooper, reedman Buddy Wells and drummer Jonno Sweetman – has produced something completely different. “If a musician is thinking about selling music as an imperative to their aesthetic choices, or trying to appease the market-driven decisions of record companies, then they’re already off to a bad start,” says the guitarist. “The way people package and present their music is only limited by their imaginations.”

The quartet (from left): Khota, Cooper, Wells, Sweetman

On the new album, Liminal, just out, , those imaginations cross a lot of thresholds. We hear respectful allusions to musical cross-currents from across the world: India, Brazil, Nigeria, Mali, Ethiopia – and here. The intricate polyphonies and alternative scales of composer Mulatu Astatke infuse the track Yekatit ; a samba feel opens the Ghosts suite; compelling Afrobeat patterns underpin Unearth. It’s absolutely not ‘World Music’ in the appropriative marketing sense, but definitely world music in Karl Marx’s sense: “The worker has no country.”

liminalcover.jpgThat’s the first echo of the title in the sounds, and Marx is the right source for a reference. Because those tracks and the others deliberately allude to the politics of the exploitative world we inhabit. Khota doesn’t set out mechanically to compose “songs about…” Rather, he aims to draw out the “sensibility brewing in the sounds”: what has sensitised him as he travels, works, observes and reflects.

That’s where the second echo comes in. Because his travels and observations have been making him think about how the majority of oppressed and excluded people exist on the margins of the world their labour fuels. The armies of early morning workers, travelling through the Delhi Haze; the Nigerians who cannot benefit from the oil they Unearth; the miners of Marikana, the injustices of whose lives and deaths live on as Ghosts*. But their liminality has a positive face too, because they also stand on the threshold of the new world they have the power to make.

And there the politics and the improvisation intersect. Liminal’s intelligent sleeve-notes, by Ben Verghese, quote poet-scholar Fred Moten on improvisation (Come On, Get It!):

“all inseparably inside out and unexternalisable, all/ and more and none and gone, come on.”

Which is about as close as you can get to describing what improvisation does, as opposed to how it sounds. It’s there, and it’s passed. It won’t ever sound the same again (beware of players who can repeat a so-called ‘improvised’ solo on demand). And, like the oppressed and excluded, it’s always on the threshold of a new (sonic) world. Liminal.

Khota: “African music is not an anthropological artefact.”

A third resonance between title and sounds is in the album’s easy, unselfconscious genre-crossing (much of which has evolved from the decade-long partnership between Khota and electronic producer Cooper) where electronic grooves unfurl shoulder-to-shoulder with classic jazz phrases. Rigid genre boundaries, Khota suggests, have done no favours to the intellectual legacy of African music: “We are no longer content to have our own musical legacies shoved into Ethnomusicology. Music degrees have been severely impeded by the notion that what’s good is only out there beyond our shores and the only way to study our own music is as a kind of anthropological artefact. For the longest time, our universities placed African music in the category of ‘Light Music’ , to be distinguished from ‘Art Music’, which was reserved for the European classical tradition. This distinction has no place in music education. All those attempting to maintain this hegemony are on their way out.”

It certainly finds no place on Liminal. It is a combination of all the elements that creates such intense, absorbing and compelling music. A musical discourse that engages with the world engages with all of it: not the serious discourse of exploitation alone, but also celebration and the euphoria of working together. That kind of endeavour, says Khota, reminds us other lives and other worlds are possible.

Reza & Shane
Khota and Cooper

As well as drawing on many lineages and genres, the music draws equally on all the players, and richness from the places where they meet, overlap and part company: the kind of liminality found in the permeable boundaries between individuals when they are creating collectively.

Khota draws attention to Wells’s solo on Delhi Haze as “one of my favourite parts of the album ”, to Cooper’s “cool arpeggio bass pattern” on Lost is a Place, and to Sweetman’s “ability to drive the energy of the band” on Diamond Mind, and the way he “provides the narrative backbone” throughout. If you want to know who these musicians are, Khota suggests, listen carefully to those elements.

Khota doesn’t stand still. He’s currently Artist-in-Residence at UWC’s Centre for Humanities Research and has begun studies towards a PhD. The travels will continue, with journeys with Mandla Mlangeni’s Tune Recreation Committee to Zanzibar, Reunion and other SADC counties. He’ll also be touring with saxophonist Abraham Mennen, also soon to launch a new album. The Quartet will appear – with material from Liminal and probably some new things too – at the 2019 Cape Town International Jazz Festival


* Khota’s more detailed thoughts about his Ghosts suite invoking Marikana will appear soon in an interview at





Carlo Mombelli quartet: playing like angels; facing demons

Carlo Mombelli’s most memorable works have often been his most personal. Think of the Mombelli number most South African jazz fans know best, in one version or another: Me, the Mango Picker ( ). That song embodies an intensely personal moment: when the pull of returning to an uncertain home from a successful career as bassist, teacher and composer in Germany suddenly became overwhelming.

Since then, it’s been hard to shut his music in a single box. The jazz label fitted perfectly when he was working with the late John Fourie and Duku Makasi in the early 1980s, but he was only in his 20s back then. Since those years, there have been partnerships with Lee Konitz and Barbara Dennerlein on the jazz side, and Egberto Gismonti on the similarly unclassifiable side; explorations of abstract and processed sounds, and of traditional percussion (with Tlale Makhene) and vocalese (with Mbuso Khoza); music that is formally composed – including film scores – music that is wholly improvised in the moment, and music combining elements of both.

Gina Nelson’s cover art

But every album has held reflections on the personal, and the bassist’s latest, Angels and Demons (on digital platforms, and available on vinyl here: ), may be his most personal to date. It has emerged from his sabbatical year (he currently teaches at Wits), which has seen him reconnect, after a long time, with the father who left South Africa early in Mombelli’s childhood. One number, In the End We All Belong – a gentle ebb and flow of sounds with the feel of a string adagio – is dedicated to that father, Angelico Francesco Mombelli. Another, A Mouse in a Maze, evokes the circumscribed life-choices of another family member in the turbulent childhood that ensued.

Angels and Demons mixes work with the current quartet (pianist Kyle Shepherd, guitarist Keenan Ahrends and drummer Jonno Sweetman) processed sounds, and guest appearances from pianist Peter Cartwright and others, including vocalist/saxophonist daughter Maria. (It’s a family affair: Mombelli’s other daughter, Gina Nelson, created the perceptive pen-and-ink portrait on the cover.)

The reflections aren’t only inward-looking. Children of Aleppo is dedicated to “children everywhere who have suffered and lost their lives through the hunger for power, and greed, of those meant to protect them” – those ruthless exploiters are among the album’s demons.  On that track, Cartwright’s sombre processional piano is haunted by processed sounds like the echoes of cries. It isn’t the first time Mombelli has written an explicitly political tune. Ethical Sam’s Cookery School on the 2007 I Stared into My Head  poked bitter fun at the interfering foreign policies of big nations. That one was angry; this one is much, much sadder.

The mood of Angels and Demons is overwhelmingly lyrical and thoughtful, often with unease clawing at the edges: a sabbatical is supposed to be a time for reflection, and the album provides a powerful space to sound that out. Among the angels are Mombelli’s co-players who provide inspired support, with Ahrends and Shepherd doing particularly moving work on Pulses in the Centre of Silence and Athens (which refuses all potential programme-music cliches about that city, and focuses instead on the lived texture of Mombelli’s experience there.)

“I don’t listen to jazz,” somebody at a year-end function the other day told me: “It hurts my ears.” Angels and Demons will never do that. It’s quiet, contemplative music with feelings to the fore. It might just hurt your heart a little – but in a positive way.