CTIJF 2019: a plethora of good jazz; a paucity of profile

John Scofield’s Combo 66

***UPDATE 20/03/19. Due to the unavailability of Benedikt Reising, the European contingent of The Mill is now the Swiss Marco Müller on bass, Florian Egli on sax, Matthias Tschopp on baritone sax and Fabian Willmann from Germany on bass clarinet and sax. 

It’s been an odd run-up to this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF, 29-30 March, www.capetownjazzfest.com ). Normally, by this time of year, I’m part of eager debates about which gigs my crew plans to attend. This year, I’ve been asked too many times: “Is there a Festival? Is anybody good on?”

I’ve written before about how the mainstream media decision to reduce music to ‘lifestyle’ weakens the whole music ecosystem. (Think of journalists as irritating biting flies if you must – but the extinction of insects is likely to do for the planet quite soon.) But it also has to be said that the Festival’s own publicity has been absurdly low-key so far, given that, yes, there is a Festival, and yes, it’s a remarkably good line-up.

In previewing, I’m going to concentrate on music in the broad church of jazz: there are other genres too, but your patience as readers is limited, and I assume jazz is what you read me for.

The known quantities

Richard Bona

First, there’s a bunch of performers who need no introduction. Their music already has a solid fan-base, one or two are repeat visitors to Cape Town, and their performances always fulfil expectations. These range from the magisterial Brazilian pianist/vocalist Elaine Elias, Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona and US-based, Cape Town-born, reedman Morris Goldberg, to South African-based pianist Don Laka, saxophonist Don Vino, scholar and reed player Mike Rossi, as well as the golden-voiced Vusi Mahlasela (this year, leading a tribute to the late Oliver Mtukudzi in the slot that, sadly, both were meant to share).

And – known quantity though he is – the festival’s failure to proclaim more loudly the presence of guitar titan John Scofield is inexcusable. Scofield has paid enough dues to merit a much better welcome. He’s played (like a monster) with everybody; this time, he’s introducing Combo 66, with pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummer Bill Stewart.

The home team

Any foreigner looking to see most of the many faces of South African jazz will get the chance. In generational terms, players span the 1970s, with veteran Cape Town pianist Ebrahim Khalil Shihab (https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2018/11/17/essence-of-spring-ibrahim-khalil-shihab-plays-inside-and-outside-all-the-boxes/), the golden age of the Sheer Sound 1990s with African Time Meeting Legends OverTime (bassist Herbie Tsoaeli, reedman Sydney Mnisi, trumpeter Feya Faku, pianist Andile Yenana and drummer Kevin Gibson), right up to today with the quartets of guitarists Vuma Levin and Reza Khota (https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2018/12/16/reza-khota-quartet-liminal-players-without-borders/ ).

Herbie Tsoaeli

Levin’s Quartet, with Dutch and Spanish co-players, also talks to the creative partnerships South Africans have found in Europe, as does another group he plays in: the Swiss/South African Mill. This unites Swiss saxophonist Benedikt Reising, reedman Sisonke Xonti, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, pianist Yonela Mnana, bassist Shane Cooper and drummer Marlon Witbooi. (Mlangeni gets a rather different outing in Re-Percussions, where his trumpet meets UK Mobo-winning drummer Moses Boyd, DJ Lag, Tumi & The Volume’s Tiago and Nonku Phiri.)

Xixel Langa

Tiago’s presence, in turn, reminds us that South African jazz belongs to a pan-African family, something underlined by the current edition of Steve Dyer’s Mahube, co-directed with son Bokani, with South Africans singer Mbuso Khoza and trombonist Siya Makuzeni, singer and mbira-player Hope Masike from Zimbabwe and Xixel Langa from Mozambique (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnDGAlo-JhM ). Makuzeni, Masike and Langa add continental power to a regiment of powerful women musicians, many of the South Africans drawn together in the Lady Day Big Band.

The surprise packages

Most exciting this year are the visiting players you may not know. There’s far less cobwebby nostalgia over mildewed international pop ephemera in this year’s line-up. Instead, those spaces are filled by new names. And they’re certainly spaces to watch.

Nubya Garcia

I’ve already written at length about scholar, composer and flautist Nicole Mitchell ( https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2018/07/03/nicole-mitchells-downbeat-award-should-bring-her-to-south-africa/ ) who brings her Black Earth Ensemble to the event. Mitchell is a virtuoso player and a foremother of Afrofuturism; simply, you must see her. Inhabiting a similarly searching musical landscape is UK sax and flute player Nubya Garcia (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrgEZyUe0fM ), who first came to notice in the all-female septet Nerija, but who has also grown an impressive portfolio of collaborations, and solo work that’s been described by the UK Guardian as “already collectible.” Neither Mitchell nor Garcia have pulled their punches about the infestations of patriarchy they’ve met in jazz; hopefully there will be workshops where they can share their skills and victories.

Alfa album“I wanted to make people feel something,” says UK multi-instrumentalist/pianist Alfa Mist. Growing up in grime and hip-hop music , it was hearing Miles Davis that switched him on to jazz. (How many players must that be true of by now? Garcia name-checks Kind of Blue too.) That means he’s not afraid of beats, but his 2017 release Antiphon (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrgEZyUe0fM ) is not the result you’d expect. Mist harnesses intricate rhythm underpinnings in the service of music that’s thoughtful and spiritual.

A different flavour of spiritual sounds will come from Hammond B3 player Cory Henry, who started off in church. When he brings the Funk Apostles to Cape Town, that sanctified feel will infuse a lot of what he plays, like his formidable hit Naa, Naa, Naa (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_lXpTvSxgA  — Warning: the track is an earworm so addictive it should be illegal). Henry rescues the sound of the ‘70s and ‘80s from shoulder-pads, platform shoes and bad perms, to remind us that it was popular for a reason: it’s good music and a magnificent vehicle for impro. But this is the set everybody will dance to – even your sister-in-law who isn’t sure she likes jazz.

Well, that’s my pick. Now all I have to worry about is which of these great players gets exiled to the acoustically hideous spaces of the indoor Kippies and outdoor Manenberg stages (unless they’ve cured the problems this year?) and how to resolve the inevitable clashes between sets.

(DECLARATION OF INTEREST: As most of you know, I have had a long-standing partnership with the CTIJF for Arts Journalism training and they host me with transport and accommodation.]



Finally congratulations to the 85-year-old Wayne Shorter, whose Emanon has just taken a brilliantly well-deserved (and far too long coming) 2018 Jazz Grammy. Listen!  http://somethingelsereviews.com/2018/09/28/wayne-shorter-emanon/

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