Carlo Mombelli Live at the Birds Eye: painting a decade of changes

Jazz isn’t a scene, it’s an ecology: its parts relate to and impact on one another. We’ve felt that hard this year with the closure of the Orbit, the consequently fewer venues where new work can be developed and trialled (and artists can earn to support their recording projects) – and the very much smaller number of local jazz releases in 2019 than in 2018.

It’s been noted many times that the Orbit wasn’t perfect – and any ticketed venue is going to be exclusionary, given current levels of inequality. But it had some strengths other spaces didn’t and still don’t offer: a tuned, playable piano on-site; a Green Room for musicians; room for the new; and an audience gradually cohering into a community – a knowledgeable and respectful sounding-board for artistry.

The Birds Eye stage

You can find other stages like that, and in an increasingly globalised jazz community some South Africans have even been able to access them overseas. One example is the Birds Eye Club in Basel, Switzerland. Founded by bassist Stephan Kurmann in 1994, the club has hosted and networked a remarkable number of international artists, many South Africans among them. It’s a tribute to the jazz acuity of the Swiss cultural organisation here, Pro Helvetia, how many have made that journey: Herbie Tsoaeli, Mandla Mlangeni, Hilton Schilder, McCoy Mrubata, more. There’s even a volume dedicated to South African guests on the club’s own CD label (Vol 13: see!/pages_e/cd-club )

Now bassist Carlo Mombelli has used his various sets at the Birds Eye to document his own musical history over the past decade, with Carlo Mombelli Live at the Birds Eye 2009-2018 ( )

Appearances at the Birds Eye are not Mombelli’s only links with Switzerland. He has also guest-lectured regularly on Jazzcampus Basel (at the Northwestern Switzerland university) where, this year, trombonist and educator Adrian Mears created big-band arrangements of the bassist’s works for students (an extract here: . Mears, vibraphonist Jorge Rossy, trombonist Andreas Tschopp and drummer Jonno Sweetman comprise Mombelli’s ensemble for the last three of the CD’s six tracks.csm_Carlo_Mombelli_live_at_the_birdseye_b818d6d985.jpg

Others include a 2009 version of Zambesi (recorded on the 1990 Happy/Sad with Charlie Mariano) featuring Marcus Wyatt, Siya Makuzeni and Justin Badenhorst; Song for Sandra and Motian the Explorer from 2013 with Mbuso Khoza; and the 2018 versions of Road.., Athens and The Spiral Staircase.

Mombelli remains a firm believer in the album format, despite the industry switch to disaggregation and streaming. He’s not a fan of that. As well as the high dollar cost and minimal cent returns of publishing on streaming services, “When I put an album together, it’s conceptual – there’s a movement of ideas from how it opens to how the finale must be,” he says.

In the same way, this collection tells the story of the movements, musical and conceptual, in Mombelli’s music over the period. Apart from Zambesi (which was the only track retrievable from that particular session) that’s how he made the selection – to travel towards what he calls the “gentleness” of his current voice.

“With Prisoners of Strange I used a lot more sound designs that were maybe more quirky, for example the bird loops that I created on Zambesi, or the music I composed for toys – which I never recorded.” Because of the music’s intricacy, Prisoners, he says, demanded “a lot more rehearsal time.

“My music since 2011 has been a lot freer in approach but I still try to keep a strong sense of melody.” By composing more on bass than piano recently, “I feel I have developed a more personal sound in my composing and playing than ever before.”

(That was also my assessment. When I reviewed Mombelli’s Angels and Demons last year I called it “his most personal album to date.” )

There are other elements to think about on this retrospective too. Mombelli’s plangent, sonorous bass voice is gorgeous. But I find I still also hanker for human voices in his work – it just feels made for singers. Earlier tracks remind us of the fearlessness of Makuzeni’s contributions, and the imaginative richness of Khoza’s.

Carlo Mombelli

And while, for example, Athens on Angels and Demons was a fiercely personal interpretation (it was the city where he re-met his father after so long), this arrangement offers a focus on chords and harmonies as well as emotions: how the musical elements fit together. The two trombones are the almost-human voices – it’s tempting to call them a Greek chorus – first responding to the bass, and then conversing with Rossy’s delicate vibe sounds.

Yet you never lose the thread of experience inspiring each number, because narrative always matters in Mombelli’s music. There are two sets of stories here: the individual tales inspiring each track, and the arc of the composer’s past decade in music. In depicting both, “I use my bass as the paintbrush,” Mombelli says.


* The album isn’t the only thing Mombelli has published recently. He also has a new music book out. See



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