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.

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