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

John Scofield’s Combo 66

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 Bokani Dyer, 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/


Mandisi Dyantyis Somandla: almighty moving music

Sometimes an album is just so damn gorgeous that where it fits in the canon (“Yes, but is it JAZZ?”) is completely irrelevant. That’s the case with trumpeter Mandisi Dyantyis’ debut, Somandla https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/somandla/1440476891, which I first heard a few weeks ago and which I’ve had on play ever since.

In my book, it certainly is jazz, and parts of the gorgeousness exist in the ways it invokes the historic voice of the jazz born in the Eastern Cape half a century ago.

Album.jpgThe word ‘voice’ is deliberate. Dyantyis is as powerful a singer as he is a trumpet player, and within the first few tracks he’s revisited memories of both Victor Ndlazilwane and Victor Ntoni, with exhortations that could get you on the dancefloor in Kuse Kude (plus a pinch of gravelly traditional vocalese too, at the end) and romantic crooning on Izingo. Further into the album, you think of Ringo Madlingozi as well.

We have to wait till the fourth track, Olwethu, to hear a trumpet solo, and then it’s one that combines bluesiness and dazzling runs with the brio of a Dennis Mpale.

But although you can call up all those historic names to sketch the feel of the music, they absolutely don’t define Dyantyis, because his compositions are his alone.

Dyantyis is a graduate from the UCT jazz school, and while the products of that milieu consistently produce intelligent, vibrant music, catchy hooks in the old-school sense aren’t always its most prominent feature. He seems to write them all the time. Even on more impressionistic numbers, such as the slow processional, Because You Knew (Less), the idiomatic common ground between horn and voice is so strong you can walk away humming.

A strong ensemble underlines all this: three alternate pianists – Andrew Lilley, Blake Hellaby and Bokani Dyer – plus Lumanyano Unity Mzi on drums, an empathetic Sean Sanby on bass and the inimitable Buddy Wells on reeds. Wells is responsible for many moving solos, including those on the lush love song Ndimthanda, and Ingoma Yenkedama – his power as a saxophonist has always lain in his ability to reach the heart (of a melody, a harmony, and the listener). And in case that latter ballad hasn’t pulled enough heartstrings, it warms up for the title track, which pulls even more with a plaintive, velvet-throated solo from Dyantyis himself and some equally velvet fingers from Dyer.

As well as uniting the horn as voice and the voice as horn, the album also draws out a clear line of descent from historic community singing (Molweni, Esazalwa Sinje), through the big bands of the Eric Nomvete, Ndlazilwane and Tete Mbambisa eras, to today’s complex, thoughtful jazz compositions of, for example, Feya Faku. There’s no mistaking where this music comes from – and not solely because of the language of its lyrics. The chords and harmonies born from overtone songs, the way solo and ensemble voicings are juxtaposed, and the restless canter of rhythms all position it proudly in relation to its roots.Portrait.jpg

Dyantyis is music director for the Isango Theatre Company, a position he’s held since 2008 and which has taken him across the world. Mood is obviously an important concern in theatrical composition, and here, on an album dominated by ballads, the overwhelming mood is spiritual and lyrical. That’s reinforced by an all-acoustic sound, and sensitive mixing from Murray Anderson. It’s unashamedly romantic music – not merely the hearts and roses kind, but more the love of god and community. So you might consider buying it for Valentine’s Day…but you’ll be playing it, and savouring the spirit and musicianship, long after that.


The politics score #2

I did promise to keep an eye on the arts and culture policies presented in election manifestos. That’s proving an easy job – because there’s hardly anything. The EFF document, launched on Feb 2, is strong on things to be made mandatory, but shares the pervasive malaise of the other parties: silence on implementation processes and where the money will come from.

It has one excellent proposal: an arts and culture teacher for every grade in every school. That needs some attention to teacher training and curriculum materials too, and perhaps we can read more of the intention from the manifesto’s advocacy of more scholarly publications in indigenous languages – definitely a progressive step. There’s also a proposal, in the section on Traditional Leadership, for “mass participation in cultural activities”: again, an excellent idea. Unfortunately, the words are so general that they could mean anything, including compulsory Reed Dancing. We need the phrase “access to create and consume the arts” upfront, and some indication of how. The creative economy, meanwhile – over-foregrounded (but at least present) in the ANC document – is invisible.

As for the GOOD Party manifesto, launched the other day, it contains just the usual platitudes and silences on the arts. Artists and musicians, we know, all love a good party – but they won’t find one there.

RIP Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi 1952-2019


A life in music

Dr Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi was born in Harare on 22 September 1952 and died on 23 January 2019 – a year to the day after the passing of his fellow musician, trumpeter Hugh Masekela. (In a poignant clip, you can see Mtukudzi reminiscing about Masekela here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWjOupjON88) Mtukudzi was the oldest of seven siblings, and the early death of his father taught him harsh lessons about the struggle for economic survival – alongside the anti-colonial struggle. Harare’s black townships were at that time in a ferment of resistance against the settler regime, inspired by the independence of other African nations. This intensified after the then Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence under Ian Smith and the Rhodesian Front in 1965.

Rolling with the Wagon Wheels

Before he was 20, Tuku had picked up a guitar and his talent as singer, player and composer of irresistible tunes rapidly made itself known. His first band was the Wagon Wheels, almost a supergroup of young Zimbabwean players  later to become stars, including Thomas Mapfumo.young

Mtukudzi’s first big hit, aged 23, was the 1975 Stop After Orange. After that, the albums began piling up, much of that early music on the Kudzanayi label. It began a discography that, by the time of the musician’s death, stood at close to 70 albums. With the Wagon Wheels, Mtukudzi recorded the gold hit Dzandimomotera, a song in tribute to the Second Chimurenga https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orRGmupfxMg&index=10&list=RDCaZg4DH9IWM

By 1977, Mtukudzi had left the Wagon Wheels to helm the Black Spirits, the name of all the groups he subsequently led (apart from a two-year break 1987-9). Mtukudzi and Mapfumo told different stories about the split and the ownership of the band names: late ‘70s/early ‘80s Harare was a fluid, semi-professional music scene where band names and personnel constantly shifted. However, Mtukudzi has acknowledged Mapfumo’s mbira-inspired soundscape as one influence on his own style. He was an innovator, however: the Black Spirits’ music drew from Shona mbira pop, South African mbaqanga, deep rural tradition (Kuvhaira https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orRGmupfxMg&index=10&list=RDCaZg4DH9IWM), gospel and everything else he heard – including jazz.

A sound much bigger than jit

jitInternational commentators often label his sound jit (particularly after the success of Zimbwe’s first post-independence 1990 movie of that name https://zimdev.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/jit-the-movie-a-reminder-of-zimbabwe-in-its-glory/, to whose soundtrack Mtukudzi contributed much). That style, however, had many fathers: Robson Banda, The Four Brothers, Paul Matavire and the Bhundu Boys among others. And, like any genre label, it’s an over-simplication. Mtukudzi’s albums over the years have encompassed dazzlingly diverse identities beyond pop. Calling it simply “Tuku Music” fits far better.

Although much footage of that early music scene has survived, little of it is documented in detail. However, thanks to the enthusiasm of collectors, you can find one compilation (there are more) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaZg4DH9IWM, and  see this fabulously evocative clip of a Queen’s Gardens concert here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0uysueiI4A&index=7&list=RDCaZg4DH9IWM  Or check the tracks Ndipeiwo Zano from 1978 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OGpF663PTM&list=RDCaZg4DH9IWM&index=5 and Ndakakubereka (from the 1982 Please Napota) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAxhZfcZc1E   zano

With Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 came Tuku’s album Africa, including the hits Zimbabwe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15X_18s1UVs and Mazongonyedze. With independence came more freedom of movement, and Africa-continental, and later international, attention.

Solidarity and southern African sounds

By the time South Africa attained its own regime change, there were ears here more than open to Tuku Music. Ardent pan-Africanists, returned exiles who’d heard the music on their travels, migrants from Mtukudzi’s homeland and simply people who appreciated damn good tunes with thoughtful words came together for hisMahube.jpg Johannesburg concerts. The old Melville Bassline was one of his early stages, as well as the city’s Arts Alive Festival. In 1998, the Sheer Sound label released the Tuku Music album (full album at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1fMHsScHVE ) and in the same year Mtukudzi worked with South African saxophonist Steve Dyer (whom he knew from Dyer’s time in Zimbabwe) on the theatre project Mahube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Pn7ZALaaeM ). That expressed one of Mtukudzi’s (and Dyer’s) dearly-held visions: for cultural unity across the continent, drawing on Africa’s own musical resources and inspirations.

Platforms and messages

Mtukudzi is better described as a social activist than a politician. His solidarity with the liberation struggle (ours and Zimbabwe’s and Africa’s) was unquestionable. Subsequently, he worked on projects speaking out about women’s rights (the film Neria – he sings the title track here with Ladysmith Black Mambazo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVwLIvorMck ); a theatre production about the conditions of street children; and multiple documentaries about AIDS ( the song Todii here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUegP24Z_gQ ).


In 2001, he released the song Wasakara (“You’re too old”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQfNLAio8iU ) interpreted by many as a coded appeal to then Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to retire gracefully. The song allegedly cost Mtukudzi a second honorary degree. But accessing platforms to talk about what mattered was always more important to him than holding a rigid party position. In 2016, he sang at the pro-Mugabe Million Men March (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIrYaRiEdN0 ).


A unifying legacy

Mtukudzi was a man who consistently built and crossed bridges: in musical styles and across social and geographical divides. He gained massive international respect, working with artists as diverse as Joss Stone, Bonnie Raitt (who wrtote the sleeve notes for Tuku Music, Baaba Maal, Taj Mahal and, among South Africans not already mentioned, the Muffinz, Sibongile Khumalo and Ringo Madlingozi (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnjKu4aGJfk ). That respect came not only because he made superb music, crafting songs that will live forever as classics, but because he was a consummate stage professional, and because, with everyone he encountered, he was a straightforward, loving and compassionate human being. Zorora murugare, Tuku.

(NOTE TO EDITORS: A surprisingly large number of you have asked me today to write an obituary for Oliver Mtukudzi. Much of the soul of his music rests in his words, and a Shona-speaker will write his life, spirit and work far better than I can. But feel free to use this blog under the provisions of Creative Commons 3.0. Please credit the source as sisgwenjazz.com)



Joseph Jarman: 1937 – 2019


Reedman, percussionist, composer and Buddhist priest, Joseph Jarman, a pioneer member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, has died aged 81. Read these summaries of his life at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/11/obituaries/joseph-jarman-dead.html and http://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/breaking-news/15156-joseph-jarman-14-09-37-9-01-19, and hear him performing the poem referred to in the second obituary at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk5J9f5LFpI

Hamba Kahle. May he find peace

Elections & culture: commoditisation made manifest(o)

The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!

  • The government shall discover, develop and encourage national talent for the enhancement of our cultural life
  • All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands – 26 June 1955
KLiptown crowd.jpg
Making the Freedom Charter: Kliptown 1955

Sixty-four years ago, after a popular consultation policy that shames the past two decades, the Freedom Charter of the ANC was adopted in Kliptown. Current election manifestos often ignore culture, hide it away in passing generalities, or re-label it as something else (see below). But in the Freedom Charter, the pillars of a decent, humane cultural policy –  freedom to both create and enjoy culture– had equal status to the policy pillars on land, economy and trade.

Those principles should not have changed. And they apply, with no weaselling about migrants, to “all those who live in” South Africa.

For voters who care about culture, it’s worth looking at whether and how the parties plan to treat it – because that’ll impact on the climate of freedom and creativity we’ll all be living in for the next five years. The ANC manifesto was the first out, so I’ll start there. The EFF’s is due on Feb 2, the UDM’s on Feb 16 and the DA’s on Feb 23. Where they outline distinctive policies, I’ll look at them too. If they just echo similar generalities, I won’t. So, with a leader nicknamed from a Hugh Masekela lyric, what does the party of Thuma Mina have to say about culture?

Market rules

Actually, nothing. ANC manifestos have always had an arts and culture section. This time, the six points are tucked into a section on the economy labelled “creative industries”. That’s a positive acknowledgment of the role of the arts as economic drivers. But it’s also worryingly reductionist – because that’s never all they are. Our artists matter for what we were, are, and can become, even if they never make a cent – precisely why President Ramaphosa sang that song. Reducing the arts to “industries” gives civil servants the nod to sideline anything that can’t be commoditised.

“We will promote and support the diverse creative industries, from folk art, festivals, music, books, paintings and performing art to the film industry, broadcasting and video games.”

As a general statement, this is fine – but so general that any party mentioning culture at all is likely to say something similar. But if books are to be promoted and supported, why has more notice not been taken of the continuing copyright law debates – or the punitive VAT rate? If broadcasting is, can we please look again at the perilous state of SABC?

The devil’s in the detail, and we have to ask – as of every clause in every party’s manifesto – ‘How?’ What forms will promotion and support take? What will be the budget allocations, criteria and benchmarks. Where will the money come from, and who will decide where it goes, with what safeguards?

FC text.jpgFunding

“We will ensure public funding schemes do not exclude the creative industries and work with the private sector to increase investment in the sector.”

Might that include structuring greater flexibility into funding conditionalities? Creative projects – as repeated studies worldwide have established https://unctad.org/en/pages/publications/Creative-Economy-Report-(Series).aspx – are often short-term, non-hierarchical and project-based. They thus often fail to fit with rigid government or corporate funding bureaucracies.


“We will develop and implement cultural projects in schools and communities that raise awareness of career opportunities in the creative industries.”

Only “of career opportunities”? How about raising awareness of the joy of making art, theatre and music, and the right to access the resources to do it? Community arts projects already exist – look, for example, at the Moses Molelekwa Art Foundation in Tembisa https://en-gb.facebook.com/mosesmolelekwaarts/ – and they struggle or fall. The need is not for governments to fabricate new projects from above, but to listen and learn from what works at the grassroots to unleash creativity.

fc posterHeritage

We will promote and invest more in museums, archives, heritage and cultural projects. This will include support to conserve, protect and promote the country’s Liberation History and Heritage archives, struggle sites, values, ideas, movements, veterans and networks.”

How much more will be invested and with what strings? How will access be made easy and affordable for those with low or no income? Who will be defining “values and ideas” and how? If memorialising the struggle involves vast expenditure on, for example, statues (as it has: see https://artthrob.co.za/2015/11/20/heritage-for-sale-bronze-casting-and-the-colonial-imagination/ ), could we open the debate on heritage landscapes to voices outside the elite heritage “industry”?


“We will work with stakeholders to ensure that innovators and artists are justly rewarded for their labour in the digital age and protect the copyrights of artists.”

That’s an unarguable goal – and, btw, there’s a mountain of unpaid invoices from “innovators and artists” still sitting at the SABC. But justly rewarding creators goes further; it isn’t only about the digital age. Musicians, for example, face punitive taxes on the tools of their trade and tiny performance fees after promoters’ or club-owners’ cuts. Rehearsal time, and wear and tear on instruments, never feature in their rewards. The service workers who support the entertainment industry are casualised and work highly unsocial hours, sometimes forced to exist on tips. Action to interrogate all creative labour conditions, taxation and benefits is needed.


Not tourists: the people of Sophiatown share the music of trombonist Jonas Gwangwa

“We will ensure demand for creative goods and services by tourists by supporting the development of creative industries.”

Creative goods and services and the workers who make them don’t exist for tourists. They exist to give people a voice and to enrich sociality and soul: “the enhancement of our cultural life”. Putting tourism first favours some of the most egregious aspects of the creative industries: the super-exploitation of craft workers; the divisive and archaic ethnography of the ‘cultural village’ concept, and more. The primary concern of any government should be ensuring the best possible support for creativity and access to it.

Arts policy doesn’t stand alone. If the ANC keeps its promises on settlement, infrastructure, social benefits and education, those can all potentially nourish creativity too. But, as Elvis might have said, we need a little less marketisation and much more action.

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 (https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/cape-jazz-piano/1437856295 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jh8km6e-xw0 ) 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.