Keenan Ahrends Quintet sprouts musical narratives at the recent CTIJFestival

Capetownian guitarist, Keenan Ahrends, is exuding maturity and clarity in his musical journey by honestly divulging his experiences with the joys and mistrusts in life.

To a question put to him during the press conference at Capetown’s recent International Jazz Festival, the youthful Ahrends, explains how and why he narrates his stories musically:

“Music has emotions, sometimes through words and pictures. I use tools of texture, emotion, and colour so that my sounds come naturally, maybe not always consciously. Through improvisation, you can allow yourself to play that emotion.”

Simply put, Ahrends seems to know where and how he’s headed with his craft, a delightful mix of home-grown Cape ghoema, grungy blues rock, free jazz, and bits of traditional South African music. A graduate of the University of Capetown’s College of Music, Ahrends has immersed himself in musical open markets for absorbing jazz expressions, particularly from Norway where he studied at its Academy of Music and collaborated with those artists, and from parts of South Africa through his peer friendships.

Keenan Ahrends-Courtesy Gregory Franz

When asked what influences have helped him to move jazz boundaries, his quaint reply humbly referred to those legends who have pushed the music forward, and the new experimental sounds emerging from ‘world’ influences, like trumpeter Christian Scott’s guitarist, Matthew Stevens, whose voicings led to “Scott’s Move” on Ahrends’ album. Then, there are also his peers:

“I don’t feel I have to break a barrier or produce a completely different sound, but to respect and admire what my peers are composing. Along with the old, and the new, my peers help me to have a goal in mind, a level to reach, such as a new audience to reach, and unconsciously try to cross genres . Yah, the new, the old, and my peers.”

Ahrends clearly admits that it is connecting and playing with his friends that satisfies him the most because these are the few very good players that influence him.

Another journalist question this: But doesn’t this run the danger of producing too much of the same sound if you only play with your friends? Ahrends says not really, only if a new guy comes along and tries to convince the group about styling and interpretation, and you silently comply.

A thoughtful question was posed by another: In the 1950s and 60s, there was a collective of jazz artists looking after each other with a common expression of long sought-out freedom. Now, there tends to be a lot of individualism with musicians leading bands and jamming together, and members changing roles. So, is there still a space for integrating that kind of jazz approach of collectivism and sharing?

“I think we do, in a different way today. We have a friendship amongst peers where we can interact and, as a band leader, invite others to play with me. I enjoy that; a lot of playing in each other’s projects, with a collective drive to push the music forward. For instance, the initial composer would invite other players to contribute to the writing process. So, yes, I feel that because we have strong bonds with each other, we’re not that separated. I’m not clear on how get a collective consciousness per se, but we’re all individually going in the same way. “

While studying in Norway in 2009, Ahrends suffered a culture shock, but got over it.

“We from South Africa come with our jazz language and B-Pop lines, but the improvisation class was like digging into sound and texture and free improvisation and harmony. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed this free improvisation, of making something complex simple. But I thought at times, ‘what is going on here?’ I enjoyed it.”

The Album, released in 2017, narrates Ahrends’ experiences with a reflective and honest approach. He has chosen his quintet members well, each providing their unique twist to his stories. Nicholas Williams’ piano brings a melodic tenderness to ‘Silent Mistrust’, a composition that echos Ahrends’ past disappointments. “This song conveys how I felt when my trust was broken ; I endured it, first, silently, then loudly. Through that composition, I could reflect, because there was something inside me; I had to be tender with myself.” Through his guitar improvisation, he could “tear things apart”.

Romy Brauteseth-courtesy Mikhaela Faye Kruger

Double bassist, Romy Brauteseth, adds reflective texture on her solos in “Stories Behind Expressions” and “Inevitability”. The breathy wails of Sisonke Xonti’s tenor sax replicate maskandi sounds unique to South Africa. Further textures and moods are layered by drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko as in “Brotherhood” and the energetic “Untitled in 5”.  The band is tight;  they know each other very well.

Nicholas Williams – piano

But it’s the guitar that carries the story line: “All” swings from a contemplative ballad into an acid rock style which screams help, giving a sense of urgency, but then dips into resolve at the end. A moving piece. “Untitled in 5” has mixed rhythms reminiscent of South African ancestral Khoisan dance with an effective and tight duo between guitar and sax only interrupted with a robust Mazibuko drum solo. Ahrends wrote this piece while camping with his family, but couldn’t find a suitable title. Same for “Untitled in 3”.

Sphelelo Mazibuko – drums

“It comes from listening to traditional South African jazz music . The chordal placement parts go into a 6/8 time with a harmonically South African tonality. I just liked the sound of ‘untitled in’!!”

Ahrends expresses emotional whirlwinds from life experiences, and shakes them off in “Here We Go Again”, a careful slow ballad that builds a story in a pure, soulful way. Then the song erupts; the energetic drum and the emphatic grungy guitar pronounce that life IS hard – but get over it. This well-constructed song sighs in desperation, but with a beauty and release that lingers.

Grungy rock marks these stories; Ahrends stylistically switches from grunge to subtle South African sounds as in “Past” and “Stories Behind Expressions”. This is why ‘Narrative’ is listenable and reflectively memorable.

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