Announcing the performance of the Standard Bank National Schools Big Band, festival producer Alan Webster thanked this year’s conductors for understanding what the young players can do with what conductor Dr. Gordon Vernick later described as “big boy music”. Challenging score sheets aside, the band delivered a strong finish to a weekend of great music.
With the lights out in the vast landscape of Makhanda town, the National Schools Big Band took the torch of this year’s Young Artist for Jazz award winner Thandi Ntuli, an alumnus of the Youth Jazz programme.
After the Miles Davis inspired “Rebirth of Cool” performance by Ntuli on Saturday night, the band opened with a lively rendition of Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven” – released on Davis’ 1963 album of the same name. The band’s performance of the tune featured a short taste of Davis’ 1953 release “Well You Needn’t”, midway through, carried by the crackling horn section.
Staying in the 1950s Blue Note era, Vernick conducted the band through Hank Mobley’s “Soul Station”, an example of what Vernick described as “laying back on the groove” – a wonderful showcase for the
Educating the audience throughout the performance, Vernick effused about the blues sound
exported from America – “the cornerstone of jazz and American music”. A global language which he has heard throughout the different accents speaking it, through the global display of jazz performance at this year’s festival.
Whether it was playing or vocalising the blues, Vernick described the consummate professionalism of the young players who have gained fluency in only three days of working with their language tutor.
Moving through the set of jazz standards, the audience was treated to a smooth tenor saxophone solo on the Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer tune “Skylark” – leading the set-list through the broad spectrum of the standard repertoire, from songs that were written for jazz musicians to songs from shows that weren’t intended to be jazz tunes but which have become part of the standard repertoire (“Tin-pan alley” standards). Supporting the melody lines, was a strong foundation of comp work by the drums, bass guitar, guitar and piano.
Instrumentals aside, the Youth Big Band featured a vocal performance of “Our Love is Here to Stay” by Marcia Barry, whose combination of a sweet, youthful tone with skilled phrasing certified her “one to watch” status.
Wearing T-shirts designed by 2015 band alumnus bassist Romy Brautuseth, the young players reminded the audience that the pipeline between the youth program and the main stage remains intact. And with the rest of Makhanda still in darkness by the end of the show, the young lights of South Africa’s jazz scene took the audience back to where we had started – “Seven Steps to Heaven” (repeated due to the power cut the first time around).
By Mandisa Mpulo