Jazz Pianist Blake Hellaby blazes into “New Beginnings”: An Interview and CD Review

A relaxed Leigh-Ann met me for the first time as she and her husband, Blake, finished their lunch at La Vie Restaurant on Beach Road in Sea Point, Capetown. I had heard her for the first time at their “New Beginnings” CD launch at the Nassau (Groot Schuur High School) several Sundays ago, as she opened their set with two mellow Christian songs which have inspired both of them in their personal and musical journeys.

 

Blake and wife Leigh-Ann Hellaby at CD launch 27 November 2016

Blake and wife Leigh-Ann Hellaby at CD launch 27 November 2016

In 2013, Blake was selected to be part of the Standard Bank National Youth Band, The Standard Bank Schools’ Big Band, as well as The Miagi Youth Orchestra. He has performed at The Oslo Jazz Festival, The Cape Town International Jazz Festival, the Jo’burg Joy of Jazz Festival, The Grahamstown Jazz Festival, The Young Euro Classic Festival in Berlin, and at Jazz on The Rocks – Titties Baai. He has also toured Burgundy, France with The Delft Big Band.

I spoke with Blake and Leigh Ann about their musical journeys, life together, and what makes them tick.

CM: What do you mean by ‘New Beginnings’? You had mentioned at your concert that your songs were inspired after experiencing some travails of life before your first son was born.
BH: Yeah, I was in a bit of a personal mess in my late teens that caused me to suspend my University studies in music for about 2 years. Family problems, my own smoking and drinking bouts, a child – all these made me wake up and find a path out of a little hell I had created. I wasn’t a Christian at that time, but meeting and marrying Leigh-Ann helped me to see a way towards a higher goal, and find God as my salvation. I started going to her church, and became involved in their musical program.   Our first son two years ago struck a ‘new beginning’ for me, and us.

CM: Then you continued with University?
BH: I continued with jazz studies as that’s the type of music I really wanted to pursue, instead of classical which is what I grew up with. I was influenced by so many South African musicians who were making their way with their craft, like Kyle Shephard, whose own spirituality drew me inward to find my own voice. I attended his concerts at Grahamstown a few years ago and was just blown away with how he handled his piano. He is someone who shows great integrity in his music, and discipline. Likewise, I listened a lot to the late Moses Molelekwa who, like the late, great Mbeki Mseleku, died before his time and left such a wealth of creativity behind.

The late jazz pianist, Moses Molelekwa

The late jazz pianist, Moses Molelekwa

CM: What other musicians have influenced you?
BH: Kenny Werner, saxman Michael Brecker, Keith Jarrett – these all have a very spiritual bent to their playing and thinking.

CM: I often ask to what extent a musician wishes to engage with social activism, at different levels, depending on one’s time and concern about certain issues. Do you have a message in your music about current affairs or social/political issues about which you would like to make a statement?
BH: I try to read a lot, and particularly like my fellow jazz saxman, Buddy Wells, who writes his own blog about economic matters. I am very concerned about ethnic and racial inequalities in this country, as someone who has mixed ethnicity – my father being English and my mother being a local ‘coloured’.

Blake Hellaby

Blake Hellaby

CM: How does this affect you?
BH: I’m curious how other people look at me – am I ‘white’ or a ‘coloured’? Many think I’m white, yet I my music is made up of all sorts of South African and African influences and rhythms. I really hate racism and will work to get rid of it where possible. It has no room in one’s spiritual development. My music seeks to attract all peoples, regardless of their backgrounds.

CM: How do you plan to promote yourself?
BH: I need a manager now. I simply can’t practice and compose and focus on my art while trying to promote myself in the business. Earlier, I had released an album under a U.S. label, and some songs became quite popular here, and were played on the radio. They were more pop songs. But that album isn’t available in this country now.

CM: I wonder if you could develop some Christmas songs that pertain more to South African realities.
BH: We were just talking about that! Yes, there is a need for more indigenous Christmas songs that don’t talk about snow and reindeers and Santa Clause! I agree, we should work on that.

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New Beginnings band members

New Beginnings band members

Blake’s CD launch of “New Beginnings” convincingly displayed his own and his band’s talents when they performed at the Nassau on Sunday, November 27. One song not on his album was a tribute to the late piano maestro, Mbeki Mseleku’s “Monwabisi”. This was lovingly presented with its funky groove and listenable drum and bass duet. However, along the way during the well-executed offerings, the sound system’s bass amplification produced irritating loud hums which threw off concentration. This is surprising for the Nassau, known as a comfortable listening venue, to make these mistakes.

New Beginnings CD Cover

New Beginnings CD Cover

But the CD itself contains jewels of sound, starting off with reference to his family background in “The First Hellabies in Africa”. A familiar few bars of Abdullah Ibrahim’s famous ‘Mannenberg’ sets the scene for England-comes-to-the-Cape where his British father fell in love with a ‘coloured’ girl. The song contains memories and rhythmic changes to connote ethnic realities, flowing between bebop to ghoema, all woven with a bit of salsa. Nice piece. “Me” has, again. a salsa feel with horn duets and a subtle piano improv , again in the minor key. Hellaby displays prowess with chord structures as he unrolls his personal statement. One hears some sadness, wandering (by the sax), different rhythms, many conversations. A delectable piece.

Hellaby appropriately honours fellow jazz spirit, pianist Kyle Shepherd, with whom band members grew up during their respective Cape schooling days and professional boost into the music world. “For Shepherd” is just that, a big ‘thank-you’ for mentoring sounds.

Several songs remind us that God helps fulfil: “He Who Loves Us” is a clear message of what spiritually rules us. It’s in a minor key which one can associate with the interior, hidden, even dark, elements of our soul. A bass solo melodically overrides a piano staccato. Likewise, “Thank You For Listening” has a slow funky gospel-ish groove with lovely, elevating trumpet, guitar, and sax solos. This is a jewel of a song. “Take Me To Church” also suggests how to turn one’s life around through a spiritual purpose driving the process. This happened to Hellaby so he knows.

“All That Surrounds Me” starts with human activity sounds and moves into a delightful arrangement of guitar tinkling around piano phrases. Drums keep pace nicely with Hellaby’s various changing themes. “Noonku” is a restful lullaby with synthesizer, written for youngest son, Daniel, who reminded his family that ‘new beginnings’ meant chasing renewed possibilities. One can hear little Daniel’s advice.

This album is a gem that needs a following. It’s copyrighted by Under the Influence.
www.blakehellaby.com

THE BAND: Marco Maritz | Trumpet & Flugel Horn
Zeke Le Grange | Tenor Saxophone
Bradley Prince | Electric Guitar
Sean Sanby | Double and Electric Bass
Lumanyano Mzi | Drums
Blake Hellaby | Piano, Electric Piano, Organ and Synthesizers

1 Comment

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One Response to Jazz Pianist Blake Hellaby blazes into “New Beginnings”: An Interview and CD Review

  1. Alvon Collison

    what a great interview… u r a specialist…eric.. thanx for that… this young man seems to be busy paying his dues…hes also gifted.. beeeg blessings to all

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