Essence of Spring: Ibrahim Khalil Shihab plays inside and outside all the boxes


Jazz musicians are a gloriously democratic mob – but some jazz audiences (Gauteng, I’m looking at you here) and self-appointed critics can be less so. It ought to be enough that the music is rich with improvisation, and infused with African groove or American swing – or very often both.

But no. Large swathes of jazz from the Western Cape in particular risk getting confined in the boxes of pop or dance music when they swing or groove too much, or feature a vocalist out front singing about “lurve”.

The boxes shouldn’t matter, but since they impact coverage, airplay and marketing decisions, they do: that’s how musicians eat.

Ironically, those same Gautengers who act all sniffy when they hit the Cape Town Jazz Festival and encounter improvised music shaped for “jazzing”, still offer respect to Abdullah Ibrahim’s Manenberg – the most perfect piece of bump jive ever written.

But it’s musicians of Ibrahim’s generation, born before South African university music schools opened their doors to Black jazz, who pioneered what the broad church of jazz is really all about. One we don’t hear half enough about is pianist Ibrahim Khalil Shihab, now in his 70s but still making new music.

Shihab’s latest album, Essence of Spring, launches at month-end (available via ) and provides a magnificent lesson in why the genre wars serve nobody except profit-hungry marketers.

Club Normandy, Mankunku and Pacific Express

Seventies strut: Pacific Express

Shihab’s mother composed and played piano in church. At 14, as Chris Schilder, he was featuring at the legendary Club Normandy in Rondebosch; by 15, he had his own group, staffed by his brothers who included the equally legendary pianist Anthony (Tony) Schilder. In 1969, in a new quartet, he released the album Spring, featuring a fiery young saxophonist called Winston Mankunku Ngozi ( ). With Pacific Express during the ‘70s he crafted a series of powerful pop hits, including the prizewinning 1978 Give a Little Love, with vocals by Zayn Adam (here’s the original from scratchy Springbok Radio ). The apartheid SABC erased the video clip of the smash-hit when they realised the band were not Americans, but both “local” and “coloured”.

In 1975 the pianist embraced Islam, adopting the name Ibrahim Khalil Shihab. He played the hotel circuit from Mmabatho, to the Gulf, to Shanghai and back, always composing, constantly exploring and stretching his musical imagination.

Back home, in 1999, he recorded an astounding three-track, 50-minute solo piano outing for Jack van Poll’s October Jazz series ( ). And then he carried on playing, teaching – most recently at the Capetown Music Institute – and writing.

Which brings us to today, when his first album as leader since Spring is released.

It’s been a long half-century.

Essence of Spring reflects on that whole history, opening with a reprise of the 1969 title track. There are covers of three Pacific Express tunes (I Hear Music, Angel of Love and, of course, Give a Little Love), Shihab originals, and some covers of the standards.

Co-producer Ramon Alexander

Co-Producer and fellow pianist Ramon Alexander has chosen to re-arrange (and carry the piano parts on) the three Pacifics tracks: a decision that works out well, since what matters about those is not so much Shihab’s playing as his acute gift for composition. To understand their success, contemporary listeners need to hear them as tunes, not solo vehicles. Alexander’s arrangements don’t repress either their unashamed poppishness (they’re as catchy today as they were back then) or the fact that they are also genuinely interesting for musicians to play; demonstrated by solo work from a predominantly young ensemble including reedman Zeke le Grange, trumpeter Marco Maritz and, on Give.., the flamboyant guitar of Bradley Prince, which perfectly catches and updates that strutting ‘70s vibe.

But it’s the pianism of Shihab I’m here for, and the album never disappoints in that respect.

Tai chi, Trane and the Bo-Kaap

Shihab doesn’t rest on Spring’s Mankunku laurels: this version is fresh, reflecting who he is today, rather than who he was then. The fast dash of Cancerian Moon and the contemplative In Persuance, though, are both tunes that Ngozi, had he lived, would have relished playing: the former swings like the clappers; the latter has that searching, soaring Trane vibe, which le Grange exploits powerfully.

A partnership that ought to go further emerges on In Persuance and Jing’an Park (inspired by the elderly tai chi devotees Shihab observed practising in Shanghai). Guitarist Reza Khota creates solos that are absolutely of today – and so are Shihab’s responses; not just his ideas about where the music should go but the masterful technique that allows him to express them. Pianist and guitarist find so much breathtaking and beautiful common ground that I’d love to hear a duo set just from them.

There’s also a short, brisk piece of classic Cape Jazz, Bo-Kaap, complete with goema rhythms and South Asian chord progressions. This mercurial variety of pace and vibe demands a great deal from the ensemble’s rhythm players, and both the veteran bassist Lionel Beukes and the much younger drummer Annemie Nel (and on one track Pacifics’ veteran Jack Momple) are more than up to the challenge, offering finely textured empathetic support, completely in the mood of each distinctive Shihab original.

at piano
Shihab at CTIJF 2013

And then there are the ‘covers’. If you ever wondered why standards exist, or why jazz players improvise on them, Shihab’s musical imagination explains it all perfectly. His playing pulled me so intensely into the unsuspected landscapes of tunes I thought I knew that I snarled in frustration when the piano medley ended. No problem: Shihab reprises the final tune in that, My Funny Valentine, for seven minutes of final track, with a magisterial contribution from Beukes – the first time we hear the bassist really stretch out.

Genre labels and boxes are the creations of a capitalist music industry that loves blinkered listeners. Shihab just writes and plays very good music indeed, and none of the divisions matter. I wish there had been space for his composition A Glimpse of Tomorrow, which opened his 2013 Cape Town Jazz Festival set…but maybe that’s the title track of the next album…Echoes of Spring launches at the Academia Theatre in Landsdowne on November 23/24 at 7:45pm, with bookings from Quicket. If you’re in the Cape, go to the performance. If not, buy the album. It’s historic in the best sense of that word.


RIP Roy Hargrove


download.jpgSouth Africans will be saddened by the news of the death of trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who’d been a popular visitor at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Hargrove was not only an impressive trumpeter, but somebody who wasn’t afraid to speak out about injustice. He could sound as sweet as his first hero, Clifford Brown, or as tough and edgy as any much younger hip-hop jazzer. For a beautiful playlist tour through his mercurial career, see this:


Hamba Kahle.


Skyjack’s The Hunter: latest episode of a long Swiss/SA musical history

When music scholar Veit Arlt spoke at the SAJE conference earlier this year, his speech was stuffed with memories of all the South Africans who’d played – during their years in exile, and since – on Swiss jazz stages. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that South Africa left its mark on Swiss jazz, or that many South African players – McCoy Mrubata, Afrika Mkhize and more – are still finding fruitful collaborations in what’s often stereotyped as merely a clean, cold, efficient country.

launch-poster_online-use-small.jpgAnother example is Skyjack, set to launch their second album at the Orbit this Friday and Saturday Nov 9 and 10. Comprising Swiss reedman Marc Stucki and trombonist Andreas Tschopp, plus South Africans bassist Shane Cooper, pianist Kyle Shepherd and drummer Kesivan Naidoo, Skyjack have been together for five years now, and their self-titled debut attracted plenty of attention, culminating in a gig at the 2017 Cape Town International Jazz Festival. This 2016 clip gives you some idea of how they sounded around then:

At CTIJF, they presented tracks from the first album plus some new material, including the rhythmically urgent Tschopp composition, The Hunter. Now, that track leads and provides a title for their second album, due for international release from Enja Yellowbird in early 2019. But before that, you can hear the music on Skyjack’s current national tour, which concludes at Joburg’s Orbit on November 9 and 10. Catch them discussing the tour and the band history on this ENCA news clip:

The Hunter is recognisably the same outfit – if you liked that sound, you’ll love this – and, as on the first outing, includes compositions from all the band members. But it’s not just a repeat performance with new tunes. There are still only five players, but the sound is often bigger, bolder and brassier, because of the amount of tight, richly-textured ensemble work. Sometimes, the sound is tougher too. I called Shepherd’s Hunter solo on that Cape Town 2017 stage a twisty forest walk; what he creates on the album (recorded a year later, in March this year) is far harder-edged and bluesier.

One of the mild complaints about the first Skyjack album was how little we heard of Cooper. He’s always such a collaborative, empathetic ensemble player that his distinctive bass sound walks out front too rarely. That’s remedied here, with more tracks offering space for his solos, especially Loom. On that track, his teamwork with Naidoo and conversations with the rest of the group weave sounds that spin away creatively from a starting point somewhere in drum n’bass. You could probably dance to it – if you were a really good dancer free of boundaries.

band image.jpg

All good jazz is a judicious blend of collaborative discipline and unchained imagination, and Skyjack do the mixing well. Shepherd’s Loueke (probably my favourite track) explores the feel of West African music, culminating in an almost kora-like piano break towards the end; embroidered with Naidoo’s intricate rhythm patterns and Tschopp’s work in the trombone’s higher register, where he can sound like a trumpeter. The drummer’s own Time with the Masters is a homage to all the forefather sticksmen who played with, on, inside and outside time – and if that makes them sound like wizards rather than musos, the simile is not unjust.

The album ends with Stucki’s Dayanous: a fast, hard-boppish theme with precise chorus work and solos joyfully flirting with risk. In feel, the tune invokes the kind of music made by the various Europe-based incarnations of the Brotherhood of Breath, some of that in Switzerland too. Not only is The Hunter a compelling album in its own right, it’s also another reminder of how many musicians – from here, and from there; then and right now – have sipped from and been inspired by that heady McGregor/Pukwana/Moholo/ Dyani heritage wine.


Stop press: Nicole Mitchell will be in Cape Town next year

A while back I wrote urging that flautist, composer, teacher and social activist Nicole Mitchell should be a candidate for the jazz roster at the 2019 Cape Town International Jazz Festival  ( ). Well, she and the Black Earth Ensemble will be there. Also part of the latest announcement is UK reed player and composer Nubya Garcia. After two earlier artist announcements dominated by reliably enjoyable but hardly radical musical names, it looks as if the festival is at last getting its innovative jazz chops in order…See the Festival website for full details.

Vuma Levin and Theo Duboule mine the past to interrogate the present

Recordar:  To remember; from the Latin re-cordis, to pass back through the heart”. So runs the opening epigraph to Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces ( ).

That’s the kind of memory guitarist Vuma Levin deals in too. Both his previous albums, the 2015 Spectacle of An-Other ( ) and the 2017 Life and Death on The Other Side of a Dream ( ) drew from South African sonic history – there were spoken texts as well as music – to unpick the complexities and over-determinations of both his own, and the nation’s, identity.

Levin’s third album, In Motion, continues that exploration, but with some intriguing differences from those two. For a start, it’s predominantly a duo album with Swiss guitarist Théo Duboule, though with contributions from trumpeter Marcus Wyatt and Swiss reedman Benedikt Reising (who along with Enoch Marutha will accompany the duo on their SA launch tour, starting on November 8).

Vuma Levin (l) and Theo Duboule (r)

Second – and unsurprisingly, given that – it stars the guitar as, in Levin’s words ( ), “a textural instrument” whose strings may be mediated through digital effects. The duo format, says Levin, permits him “a more intense focus” on sound and texture in both composition and realisation. He’s spoken previously of the influence of Radiohead, and of how Thom Yorke’s approach let him consider “foregrounding the studio as an instrument” ( ).

Neither musician has worked in a duo format before. Levin regularly leads a quintet in the Netherlands, and sometimes here; Lausanne-based Duboule has worked with various groups including the award-winning OGGY and the Phonics. He was also a semi-finalist at the 2016 Montreux Jazz Guitar Competition.

The album comprises seven tracks, two by Duboule and the rest by Levin. The connecting thread is Levin’s three Antique Spoons tracks. Two rest on sampled speech reflections: the first on the politics of memory; the second, in French, on love. The third old spoon is a dense, immersive instrumental construct: guitar lines drawn across thickly textured sound samples like runes incised in clay.

For those who enjoyed Levin’s first two outings (which is most of us who heard them, although the first especially remains difficult to find), the track His Imagined History is a clear bridge between this new work and that, especially the tracks ZAR History Volumes 1&2. We revisit the syncopated handclaps and leg-rattles of historic Khoisan music and the guitar riffs evoking more recent SA styles, but in fragmentary, compressed and allusive forms: this is history rigorously edited and the concision leaves more space for thought. For me, the sonic signifiers posed their questions far more sharply here than on previous outings.

Other tracks range across moods, though if there’s a dominant texture it’s echo – something that itself enacts what the album is about. Duboule’s Lennie’s Cottage starts out meandering and bluesy, then slams us with a harsh overlay somewhere between bottleneck and scratch; Levin’s second Spoon offers gentle melancholy; his Airport Terminal a soaring modernist space. But it’s not just titles like that which reflect the album title of In Motion.

We’re all, as Levin often discusses, moving through time – and since that word has more than one meaning, musicians more than most. Historic music such as that of the Khoisan has travelled through time too: it’s not an antique artefact, but contemporary for those who play it today. The sounds themselves move, as they are modulated and looped by effects. Finally, the two guitarists are in conversation, and that entails a great deal of dynamic movement, as the foreground of the soundscape passes between them.

Those guitar conversations convey warm empathy between In Motion’s principals. Not only are the two both exercising a dazzling level of skill, but it feels like Levin and Duboule relish working together. And it’s impossible for a listener not to be captured by that mood. In Motion is a genuinely enjoyable outing, but not one that softens the intellectual punch of Levin’s sonic bricolage. It’s still sound as incisive post-modern analysis – but then, as film-maker Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.”

Orbit poster.jpg

  • The Levin/Duboule duo launch In Motion (with guests Benedikt Reising and Enoch Marutha) at the Orbit on Nov 8 ( ); Sophiatown Mix on November 9 (011-673-1271); the Roving Bantu Kitchen on Nov 10 ( ), with a Nov 11 concert venue t.b.c.


RIP Ntozake Shange 1948-2018


Activist and wordsmith Ntozake Shange, best known as the creator of the choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, died in Maryland yesterday, aged 70. Shange belonged to that generation of poets for whom the barrier between words and music (especially jazz) was fluid and gloriously permeable. Read this NYT interview with her here .

Hamba kahle


Salim Washington and Kyle Shepherd remind us why live music rules

We live in the middle of some frustrating jazz contrasts. More startlingly fresh South African jazz is being made every year. Much is finding its way on to records that, when the international critics hear them, blow even their jaded minds away. But look at the bills for big jazz festivals (the recent Joy of Jazz, and the first announcements for next year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival) and you’ll see them dominated – apart from a handful of names – by conservatism and no apparent sense of what’s really happening.

And yet festival appearances do matter, even in a socio-economic context where most jazz fans increasingly can’t afford them. They offer a different stage, atmosphere and audience, and opportunities for national and international musical networking for both fans and players. Every live jazz performance is unique, and festival shows introduce artists to new listeners, and present them in a fresh frame even for their regulars.

SALIM posterTake Salim Washington, for example. His SA outfit, Sankofa, hasn’t yet featured at any major national festival, despite packing out club shows whenever it appears. We seem unappreciative of having a reed player who’s billed in his home country as a “jazz legend” performing and teaching in our midst. The paucity of club gigs outside Johannesburg (and the near-death of serious music journalism) means many people don’t know his work. Despite that, Washington is a diligent and energetic musician – he composes prolifically and plays wherever he can find a stage, and you can hear him at Johannesburg’s Orbit next weekend, on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 October in another of the multiple South African outfits he works with, Mandla Mlangeni’s inspiring Born to be Black (bookings: ).

I was fortunate enough to access a live recording of Washington’s 25 January concert at the Jazz Gallery in New York, in a quintet in partnership with a US reedman we should also probably know more about, the richly soulful, adventurous altoist Darius Jones ( ).

Salim Darius
Darius Jones (l) and Salim Washington

That was a revelation. Although some of Washington’s original material (Elder Washington, The Light Within, and Uh Oh! (hear a 2012 version at was familiar from his Sankofa concerts, it assumed fresh colours and flavours with these US collaborators. Yayoi Ikawa’s piano solo on Elder Washington, for example, took us to a different church from the one you’ve heard Ndududzu Makathini visit during the tune. What’s always impressive is Washington’s facility on a range of reeds – oboe, bass clarinet and flute as well as tenor – and the first set contains a tribute to fellow poly-instrumentalist the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk’s tune A Stritch in Time ( ) is deceptively pretty and fiendishly difficult; Washington’s interpretation revels in both characteristics. What was also impressive about the gig was the way the New York audience and his fellow musicians embraced the South African material Washington introduced: his own new Afrika Love (shaped around a traditional isizulu music scale taught to him by Afrika Mkhize) and Mongezi Feza’s You Think You Know Me (But You’ll Never Know Me) – which sometimes crops up in the Born to Be Black playlist too. Maybe we can persuade Jones and Washington to release the gig recording as an album, so that more people can hear it?

Pianist Kyle Shepherd has been more fortunate with festival appearances (he was at Joy of Jazz in a triple-header with Bokani Dyer and Amina Figarova) but we still don’t hear as much of him as we should. And his music, these days, is taking some compelling directions. Last Thursday (18 October), he used the second half of the Centre for the Less Good Idea’s Collapsed Concert to present Voices : a work that encompassed the Centre’s magnificent Steinway grand piano, pre-recorded voices, and synthesised sounds.

It was a profoundly moving work, referencing, as Shepherd always does, history, community and memory: sewing together Khoisan heritage, the rolling left-hand of classic Cape jazz piano and the pianist’s own current lean modernism. This time there were some more poignant, personal memories too, through the recorded voice of Shepherd’s mentor the late Zim Ngqawana offering quiet reflections on jazz and freedom. Ngqawana’s voice became a choir of many sibilant voices asserting and retreating – the musical text enacting what the verbal text expressed – then flowing back into the syncopated Khoisan steps, which have themselves infused the jazz legacy of all the Cape’s communities.

Kyle & Zim
Kyle Shepherd and the late Zim Ngqawana (r)

The Boulez Second Piano Sonata that, in Jill Richards’ powerful, mercurial interpretation had formed the first half of the concert, had as one starting-point the alienated, industrialised, all-erasing violence of the Second World War: the sonata was completed in 1948. Boulez wasn’t writing programme music to “sound like” that, but mirroring it in his erasure of sonata form. Shepherd took another road, commandeering mass industrialised products – synthesised and recorded sounds dispersed via digital technology and metal machines – and giving them souls again.

Even if Shepherd plays the piece again, it won’t sound exactly the same. That’s why live music rules, and why our festivals need to be a lot more hip to the live innovations that South African jazz musicians are creating every day.