Cape Jazz Piano dances with the future

The latest Cape Jazz compilation moves from curation to the shock of the new

Mountain Records’ Cape Jazz series has been running since 1994: compilations documenting the city’s distinctive jazz legacy, and dominated by Cape classics. Previous volumes were united by a shared iconography: appealing but stereotyped images of mountain and minstrels that might entice souvenir-hunting tourists, but never adequately reflected the power and originality of some of the music inside.

album coverWith Volume Five, published in November 2018, something magical has happened. Cape Jazz Piano ( and other online music sites) is wrapped in completely new livery: a stylish homage to the graphic language of classic international jazz albums. That’s not all that’s changed. In a transition that began gently in Volume Four, this music talks more about – and to – today and tomorrow than yesterday.

Cape Jazz Piano features six Cape-born pianists presenting solo interpretations of their own or other Cape composers’ works. Producer Patrick Lee-Thorp describes in the informative liner notes how he’d hoped for a set of interpretations, but how the players – Mervyn Afrika, Hilton Schilder, Mike Perry, Kyle Shepherd, Ramon Alexander and Ebrahim Kalil Shihab – overwhelmingly opted to play their own music. (For a sample, see this video: ) So, for example, we have Africa presenting Spirit of the Wind; Schilder offering Khoisan Symphony Parts 1 & 3 and Shihab, Give a Little Love and a new one: All Through the Years.

Reanimating the classics

Ebrahim Kalil Shihab

The classics are treated to a coat of startlingly fresh paint. Shihab unleashes unexpected harmonic possibilities on Give a Little Love. I’ve noted before his intensely personal way of peeling back the musical layers of even a well-known number to show us what lies at its heart. With this kind of encyclopedic musical insight, Shihab’s set at this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival in March should be on your don’t-miss list.

Africa similarly liberates Jonathan Butler’s Seventh Avenue and Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenberg in a medley. London has heard too much of him, and South Africa not enough: he’s not scared to challenge our cherished memories of the classics and evade the straitjacket of nostalgic attachment to a single version. His own composition, Spirit of the Wind, rests on that idiomatic Cape left hand while his right offers rich symphonic colours too.

Dagga dreamscapes

Kyle Shepherd uses prepared piano and overdubs to disassemble Dagga Party (which first appeared as Steven Erasmus’s Hotnotstee Party) and explore the spirit world opened by traditional sharing of the herb. His notes feel simultaneously ethereal and grounded, invoking kora, harp, balafon and Khoisan bow in their textures. It’s a shock to fossilised ideas of ‘Cape Jazz’ – but conjures a vision that’s compelling and respectful.

Kyle Shepherd

Ramon Alexander blends his own new standard, Take Me Back to Cape Town, with music by Mac McKenzie, the late Robbie Jansen, and Allou April in another medley, as well as revisiting the late Tony Schilder’s anthemic Club Montreal. Alexander’s covers are never merely that: he understands, and can show us, what gave tunes their historic appeal, but never lets that block his own musical intelligence.

Inevitably, hearing Mike Perry’s two tracks, Green and Gold and Crossroads, Crossroads stirs up sadness. However appealing the melodies sound, we’re always going to hear an absence too, because Winston Mankunku Ngozi , Perry’s partner in composition and interpretation, has gone. Particularly on Crossroads, the saxophone maestro is now part of the song’s identity.

There are many treasures on this album, not least the chance to hear the pianism of Africa and Schilder as it sounds today. While we already know Schilder’s Khoisan Symphony Part 1, Part 3 is new, from a current work in progress. Although ill health kept him off stages for a while, it’s inexplicable that Schilder isn’t more widely acknowledged outside his hometown. Part 3 offers a kaleidoscope of ideas that make you hunger for the full final work, and a plaintive, instantly compelling melodic hook.

Mervyn Africa

Does this all add up to a unique style we can call ‘Cape Jazz Piano’? Yes and no. There are clear shared roots of inspiration, voicing and idiom: rolling left-hand ostinato figures, relentless as the ocean; jagged Khoisan rhythm patterns; infusions from the Malay Islamic tradition; ghoema beats and night-choir harmonies; and the demands of jazzing feet. Hovering over all is the spirit of Abdullah Ibrahim. That’s not because he’s the only, or first, or even ‘best’ Cape pianist (jazz isn’t a reality-show contest) but because, for those of us born outside the Cape, he provided the recordings that defined the style. Jazz has always been about borrowing, sharing and revisioning. Today, you can detect Cape spices in what, say, Bokani Dyer plays – and he was born in Botswana, raised in Zimbabwe, graduated from Cape Town and plays in Gauteng. But for those born into the Cape and this music, it’s more a matter of the heart. In Armstrong’s words: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

New horizons

This album opens exciting new horizons for Mountain’s series by shifting the concept decisively beyond the curation of a tradition. Don’t underestimate – that was a vital task in the 1990s and 2000s, when national and international homogenisation started to blur a distinctive regional vision. But the need now is to transcend nostalgia and give today’s composers the spaces they need to present and document current work. Cape Jazz Piano shows how it can be done.

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