Jazz Steady like a heartbeat

Steady like a heartbeat

As I look back on this year’s Standard Bank Jazz Festival, I realise how much music I missed. But I had some great highs: Lionel Loueke’s exciting collaboration with four SA artists, whom he praised effusively on stage, was the stand-out gig for me. Vocalist Siya Makuzeni, flugelhorn/trumpet player Marcus Wyatt, bassist Shane Cooper, and drummer Ayande Sikade clearly loved working with this magical Benin-born guitarist.

Lionel Loueke performs in the DSG Hall in Grahamstown on 3 July 2015 at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Loueke is originally from Benin in West Africa but is currently living in New York. (Photo: CUEPIX/Kate Janse van Rensburg)

Lionel Loueke performs in the DSG Hall in Grahamstown on 3 July 2015 at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Loueke is originally from Benin in West Africa but is currently living in New York. (Photo: CUEPIX/Kate Janse van Rensburg)

Makuzeni’s own set brilliantly showcased not only her considerable vocal skills, but also her elegant trombone playing and ability as a leader. Rising piano star Thandi Ntuli, who seemed somewhat reticent on her own gig, cut loose in Makuzeni’s band. Dutch tenor man Yuri Honing, here with his sensitive “acoustic quartet”, displayed a fairly radical turnaround in his playing. Formerly a sax monster, Honing plays softer now, gentler and subtler too. “People change,” he says laconically.

Kesivan & the Lights remains a bravura band. Led by the restless drumming of their leader, the musicianship of this expanded version of the Carnegie Hall band is not in question.

Nduduzo Makhathini’s debut gig as 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz was fine, but probably didn’t do full justice to this Africanroots based pianist. I was sorry to have missed him playing with an all-SA band.

Biggest disappointment for me was the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra’s gig with composer/ arranger/conductor Ann-Sofi Söderqvist, whose music made excessive use of songs with sub-par lyrics and didn’t show off this tight big band to best advantage. However, it was great to hear various members of the SJO playing with South Africans in other contexts, particularly versatile tenor saxman, Karl-Martin Almqvist. Director Alan Webster’s astute teaming up of our artists with the visitors was once again a hallmark of the Festival.

Not jazz but with elements of jazz, were Dave Reynolds & Pops Mohamed (with an unbilled Tony Cedras on accordion) backed by bassist Sylvain Baloubeta and drummer Frank Paco. The unique combination of Reynolds’ steelpans and Mohamed’s kora is what appealed most to these ears, while Ottoman Slap, not on the jazz festival, was a joyful celebration of, chiefly, European folk music with the added visual attraction of a svelte belly-dancer.

Cape Town jazz pianist Andre Peterson’s innovative collaboration with adventurous New York-based classical pianist Kathleen Tagg entranced. This duo should go far as this very different African music project develops.

Last year, I was unhappy about the choice of venue for the Standard Bank Jazz and Blues Café. This year’s venue is a big improvement, certainly acoustically, but the combination of a Festival venue with a going concern (Saints Bistro) needs some logistical adjustment. Unfortunately, on the night I went, technical sound problems plagued Lulama Gawulana and his fellow Eastern Cape musicians playing SA Jazz Classics.

For the record, people whose opinions I trust rated pianist Bokani Dyer’s gig with four Swiss colleagues highly, as well as the sets by Carlo Mombelli’s Storytellers and Benjamin Jephta’s Quintet. The last-mentioned band featured 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz on piano: good to see Kyle Shepherd’s involvement in a number of different line-ups as well as mentoring young (well, younger) musicians in the youth workshops.

The Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival (which runs concurrently with the main festival) culminated in a heartwarming performance by the Standard Bank National Youth Band, sympathetically directed by bass guitarist Concord Nkabinde. Trusting their maturity and leadership qualities, he pretty much let them do their own thing.

Our jazz heritage is safe in the hands of mentored youth, he believes.

As Pops Mohamed would say: Welcome to the future!

Nigel Vermaas
Cue contributing editor

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