Masters at work demonstrate there’s fun in being serious

Fun in being Serious. Andile Yenana plays on the piano. Photo: Mandisa Mpulo/Cue

“Master your instrument. Master the music then forget all that and just play.” Wisdom attributed to the late, great saxophonist Charlie Parker.

Another: “Invest in everything you do. There’s fun in being serious.” A contribution from John Coltrane.

Maybe it’s because I recently watched the “Chasing Trane” documentary on Netflix (about Coltrane). Or maybe it’s the bias it confirms – that one can learn anything and, once mastery is achieved, there’s fun to be had in exploring beyond well-trodden paths of knowledge.

Sydney Mavundla – “Luhambo”

Sydney Mavundla delivers a crisp trumpet solo at the DSG Hall during the Standard Bank Jazz
Festival. Photo: Mandisa Mpulo/Cue

I write this on the fourth day of the eleven-day festival, but I doubt I’ll see anything as well-manicured as the performance (on day two of #NAF18) of Sydney Mavundla’s “Luhambo” – except his goatee. Without a note or hair out of place, Mavundla took the audience on a journey (the English translation of the album title, from Siswati) from his humble beginnings in Barberton, Mpumalanga, to his place on the DSG stage, heading a band comprising Sisonke Xonti (saxophone), Andreas Tschopp (trombone), Afrika Mkhize (piano), Ariel Zamonsky (bass), and Peter Auret (drums). Providing narrations between songs in his disarming, deadpan manner, Mavundla and his band took the audience on a journey through some of the most elegant play on offer at this year’s festival.

Andile Yenana

Fun in being serious. Andile Yenana plays his game. Photo: Mandisa Mpulo/Cue

American jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter is said to have explained that “improvisation is composition sped up and composition is improvisation slowed down”. The first time I saw Andile Yenana live (in Johannesburg), my friend (a bass player) cautioned me to look out for signs of Yenana calling the tunes while up on stage, effectively putting together the set-list on the fly. A challenging task for the uninitiated, but one to which learned hands Marcus Wyatt (trumpeter), Linda Sikhakhane (saxophone), Kyle du Preez (trombone), Christoph King-Utzinger (bass) and, Michi Stulz (drums) were more than ready for, as they guided the audience through “Umngqongqo wabantu” – a celebration of the coming of age of a people. The relaxed sight of Marcus Wyatt (who Yenana described as having been with him for years) leaning against the piano and giving a nonchalant head nod and shoulder shrug as the next tune was called, demonstrated the ease with which those who have achieved a level of self-mastery approach unpredictability.

Opening up with some vocals, Yenana introduced the first tune: “Ukusa”, a traditional amaXhosa song that delivers gentle taunting to young men draped in their blankets, preparing to visit the mountain in the traditional coming-of-age ceremony. An appreciative audience received renditions of “Rwanda”, “Zim’s Tune” (Ngqawana, the late saxophonist) and a lively rendition of “Kwela Ngoku”. With some gently delivered song introductions, Yenana delivered extended play of tune after tune with the joy of a master who still finds enthusiastic expression in his craft, apparent from the almost permanent smile on his face as the band met his challenge.

Billed as a presentation of his “latest compositions, which also mark the celebrations and contemplations of his 50th Birthday”, the set, unfortunately, elaborated little on the significance of the theme, and left me with a longing for more of Yenana’s discography, despite the encore. While the performance demonstrated musicianship, it went easy on presentation – something that muted the celebration of “free and boundless improvisation”. A takeaway from this serving of unpredictability is a reminder to continue to seek out the sense of wonder. It sustains the magic element of joy in the work of self-mastery.

Aaron Goldberg Trio

Goldberg on Piano. Photo: Mandisa Mpulo/Cue

While the contemporary American political climate may be interpreted as anything but joyful – “uncivil” with a chance of “unhinged” according to Twitter meteorology – New Yorker Aaron Goldberg shared with the audience that South Africa has invested him with a renewed sense of hope. The set, which featured Goldberg on piano, Matt Penman on bass and Leon Parker on percussion, took the audience through a form of musical dialogue that exemplified the rational dialogue absent from the stage of politics.

The body percussion of Leon Parker. Photo: Mandisa Mpulo/Cue

A pianist who looks up from the instrument, maintaining eye-contact with his bandmates throughout most of the show, Goldberg could be seen engaging in musical debate with Parker – a drummer who uses his body as an additional percussive instrument. Elegant yet passionate keystrokes from Goldberg were met with exuberant and stylish play Parker’s drumkit – bassist Matt Penman acting as the point of balance between two viewpoints.

Highlights from the set included the opening tune “Yoyo”, composed by Goldberg, having found inspiration from a Haitian meat vendor known in the area visited by the pianist for giving women customers extra portions. “Ambrosia” injected an impression of delicate beauty, into a set that modeled the passion of reasoned argument, and the balance to be found among those well-versed in its language.

By Mandisa Mpulo

The Horn section in Sydney Mavundla’s “Luhambo” band pictured from left, Andreas
Tschopp (trombone), Mavundla (trumpet) and, Sisonke Xonti (saxophone). Photo: Mandisa Mpulo/Cue