sisgwenjazz Blog by Gwen Ansell

The weekly Blog by the doyen of South African Jazz journalism, Find out her and read her thoughts, insights and observations of the S-African and international jazz scene, also listen to her weekly live online chat, during the Jazz Rendezvous Radio Pinotage & Coffee Stockvel Club Show, Monday’s at 11:00 Central African Time.

Joy of Jazz 2015: as mega jazz festivals rise, maybe small is beautiful again

Sis Gwen Jazz BlogGwen Ansell micBy Gwen Ansell SEPTEMBER 20, 2015

The final mega-festival of the jazz year, the Johannesburg Standard Bank Joy of Jazz (JoJ), opens on Thursday (24th Sept 2015) (http://www.joyofjazz.co.za/lineup.php).

Cold Castle Jazz 1962

In programming terms, JoJ finally seems to be learning how to balance the tastes of those wanting a good-time jol and familiar tunes, with those of the seekers after fresh and thought-provoking music. Let’s hope the event also sustains last year’s decent timekeeping, and adds rather more respect for conditions of reception – by, for example, eliminating those intrusive in-hall bars, and requesting audiences to turn off phones and postpone noisy conversations until the playing concludes. (Rather than during a contemplative bass solo, as seems to be the South African norm.)

The jazz festival scene in South Africa is clearly maturing: each of the Big Three – Cape Town, Grahamstown and Johannesburg – now attracts a comfortable audience and each is developing a distinctive character. That maturation ought to start us thinking about alternatives – because while there is much that a mega-festival can do; there is more that it cannot.

Jazz Festival 1964A mega-festival is about entertainment, audience passivity, and music as commodity. Rarely has a setting been more appropriate than the Sandton Convention Centre hosting JoJ. It is sealed within a glittering fortress of consumerism where fools pay absurd prices for imported luxuries under the wary eye of uniformed flunkies. JoJ patrons must spend R500 (for the Thursday gala); R750 (for one day) or R1250 (for two days), plus whatever they have left for food, drink and memorabilia. If you don’t drive – and I don’t – the Convention Centre can be accessed on foot from the Gautrain, provided you can reach a station and afford a ticket. Leaving after midnight is much harder: the Gautrain has stopped running, and even Uber drivers in fancy cars may have problems running the gauntlet of access barriers. These may seem small irritations but they represent significant added costs. The message is clear: jazz is a brand for the affluent only – those equipped to purchase all the other brands that use the music for piggy-back marketing.

Newtown, the festival’s old home, was never an ideal venue in terms of size, sound or distance between stages. But it was a significantly more egalitarian setting in terms of transport access. Even the lousy, leaking sound contributed, allowing those who could not afford tickets to loiter at the edges and hear something. And by its presence, Joy of Jazz affirmed the inner city and the people who live in it.

All that is old history. Jazz can, like any other art-form, be appropriated easily by the smug and comfortable. That does not negate the music’s power in other settings, and with other audiences. It’s time to consider starting some alternative celebrations.

Smaller events earn smaller revenue – but they also require fewer resources. Take over a club for a couple of days – as the Johannesburg International Comedy Festival will do with the Orbit Jazz Club in November – and you need to attract an audience of 400 each night, as opposed to 40 000. Because you are serving a niche, rather than Brand Generic Jazz, you don’t need “stars” – local or overseas – whose relationship to improvised creativity is tenuous or nonexistent. (But there’s always the option of crowd-funding for a relevant airfare or two.) Contexts can be created where South African players – and perhaps visual artists and dancers too – come together in new combinations, and devise new experiences, live, for an audience. Make some spaces where people can talk about what they’re doing and why – because too often we criticize or interpret without listening to the creators themselves. Teach. Take the whole thing to some location where the dinosaur festivals never venture.

Genre labels are always a burden, even when they serve as convenient shorthand. An “improvised music festival”, for example, might run the gamut from baroque concerti with the cadenzas restored to electronica – but it would certainly have plenty of space for the music many listeners call jazz.

Castle Lager Big Band 1963None of these is a new idea – it is, for heavens’ sake, where JoJ was born, in the living rooms of the Mamelodi jazz appreciators. That festival and others like it have, as the businessmen say, now “gone to scale”. Big ticket prices and big marketing underline their commodification; the money-men are risk-averse, and those who can afford to attend and enjoy don’t worry much about those who can’t.

Those who can’t, meanwhile, are the majority of the population: the communities that historically nurtured the music’s best players and were its most astute listeners. School education is still not spreading access to good music teaching fairly; affordability still keeps many young people out of colleges, while we’ve all but lost the universities of the streets. Important spaces are empty at the small-event end of the spectrum, where creativity should be getting its first chances to flower and take risks.

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Sis Gwen Jazz Blog

SEPTEMBER 6, 2015 ~ SISGWEN

Rico RodriguezTrombonist Emmanuel Rodriguez – “Rico” or “El Reco” – died on Sept 4 aged 80. The death of any great musician is a sad occasion. Even sadder in this case is the way the international press marked this passing. Without exception, the headline was “Specials’ trombonist Rico dies”.

Rico certainly did work with Coventry-based UK band The Specials between 1979 and 1984. His is the sinister ‘bone sound infusing Ghost Town, a 1981 anti-austerity (the Thatcher version) anthem that spent three weeks at the top of the UK Top 10 and ten weeks in the top 40.

But that is only a fraction of the career of a magnificent player, with more than a little jazz in his sound, which stretched from the 1950s to his final gig, only three years ago in 2012 and generated hundreds of recordings. It wasn’t just for Ghost Town that he was awarded an MBE and a Jamaican Musgrave medal. And while their era introduced him to more white listeners, The Specials did not make Rico’s career; he lent his skill and distinction to their sound.

Rico was born in Cuba in October 1934, but his family moved to Jamaica when he was still very young. He attended the Alpha Boys School: a historic religious foundation for ‘wayward boys’. He told Belgian website rebelbase that he had been “a little wily wily” as a child, and was placed there by an anxious mother.

An Alpha education was often synonymous with the uncovering of musical talent. Several leading producers, vocalists, and countless singers and instrumentalists including the four founding members of the Skatalites honed their skills behind its walls. For Rico – who started in the school band on cornet – it was older schoolmate Don Drummond who united him with his instrument. Rico said he found the initial experience of learning from Drummond terrifying “I wondered if I could ever reach up to his level.”

Drummond (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yENv58B02w) went on to be rated by pianist George Shearing as among the top five trombonists of his generation worldwide, but suffered severe psychological problems intensified by political persecution for his radical Rastafarianism. After killing his partner, he died in a psychiatric hospital, possibly from maltreatment.

Rico Rodriguez coverRico was drawn to political Rasta too, and adopted the faith in his mid-teens. Increasingly he spent his time up in the Wareika Hills with Drummond, legendary producer Count Ossie and the mix of devout Rastas, radicals, artists and students who dropped in and out of the day-long music sessions that were part-jam and part devotion. The Nyabinghi drumming that underpinned that music became a characteristic feature of his own later compositions.

Those contacts, and the constant challenge of extended practice honed Rico’s skill, making him one of the most in-demand studio trombonists of the booming Jamaican ska scene. He worked with everybody: Count Ossie and other production dons like Vincent Chin, Duke Reid and Lord Coxsone, performers such as Prince Buster, Toots Hibbert and, of course, the Skatalites. No discographer claims a complete account of the tracks he wrote or featured on, but in the press this morning/sell tonight climate of Kingston studios and the emerging sound systems, it is likely to have approached triple figures even before Rico left for London in 1961.

If life in Jamaica, with the constant threat of police raids on Rastafarian gatherings, had been hard, London with its pervasive racism was equally tough. “It was hard to get work if you weren’t European or Caucasian, “ Rico remembered. He talks about the prejudices of those early days on www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_YrKAvwsZA .His first gig outside the Jamaican community was with singer Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames – but word of his skill spread, and over his career he worked outside Jamaican music with artists as varied as John Martyn, Ian Drury, Jools Holland, Ray Davies, Paul Young and many more.

Meanwhile, he was leading his own outfits, including Rico and the Rudies, with whom he recorded in 1969 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5iW69KssvQ) . It was work for the Trojan label playing what came to be known as ‘skinhead reggae” (espoused by anti-racists among white working-class youth – and, more covertly, by not a few racists too) that blossomed into the “two-tone” movement and the teamwork with The Specials.

But Rico was also working on his own music too. In 1977, he brought out what he considered his finest album, Man From Wareika. He loved it best because he felt it caught the mood and musical textures of those early days jamming in the Wareika Hills. Other albums followed, too numerous to list in full, but including the 1981 That Man is Forward and – for those who like their ska with more space for improvisation and (old-school) rhythm n’blues swing, the 1982 Jama Rico, whose Destroy Them features haunting Nyabinghi drums.

Rico also worked with performance poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and the tragic, powerful Michael Smith on his album Mi Cyaan’ Believe It, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGUh2KSrgpE ) in partnership with another studio legend, Dennis Bovell. He was a regular at anti-racism rallies and anti-apartheid gigs: self-effacing; never with much to say, except through his horn.

In his later years, the recognition and touring opportunities did come, but usually confined within a ‘reggae’ or ‘ska’ box, and often as the guest of young white revivalist bands. Yet as superbly as Rico spoke in the voice of that genre, he was also an improvising musician who, on stages such as that of London’s 100 Club in its heyday, was equally masterful and at ease in the company of jazz players. Listen to him with the Rudies on the 1969 Mighty Dan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Wyw9xa3wVE ) skillfully weaving quotes into a rock steady rhythm matrix. Listen to the power and precision of his improvisation on Java from Jama Rico.

And even when he was playing a straight, tuneful little ska melody, Rico was a superb player who could hit his notes perfectly straight and sweet – which is hard on a slide trombone – or play around with them, daring as you like. It wasn’t accidental that one of his younger-generation collaborators was that edgiest of producers, Mad Professor: “Rico is [an absolute legend]. We toured together, worked, lived together: a nice guy.”

Rico was so much more than the “Specials’ trombonist”. He was a master musician who enriched the sound of his on-stage collaborators, and provided food for the souls, brains and feet of those of us who merely listened. May his soul rest in peace, while his memory and music live for a long, long time.

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sisgwenjazz Blog by Gwen Ansell

Gwen Ansell micThe weekly Blog by the doyen of South African Jazz journalism, Find out her and read her thoughts, insights and observations of the S-African and international jazz scene, also listen to her weekly live online chat, during the Jazz Rendezvous Radio Pinotage & Coffee Stockvel Club Show, Monday’s at 11:00 Central African Time.

 

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Is capitalism the only road to making it in the music biz?

AUGUST 31, 2015

cultural policy-makers

Every time I attend a music industry gathering, I am struck by how far behind the curve our cultural policy-makers are.

Last weekend’s KZN Music Industry Imbizo, where I was a speaker, was a modest affair: a trade exhibition, some live performance showcases, and three days of talking heads variously pontificating, educating and entertaining, all folded inside the faded glory of Durban’s historic Royal Hotel. This year, the seventh edition was slightly more modest than the organisers had hoped, since despite a go-ahead from provincial funding mechanisms back in May, the cash still hadn’t arrived by the opening date of August 27th.

Nevertheless, there was an impressive guest list, headed for South Africa by one of the fathers of our modern jazz, Themba Mkhize, and for the visitors by Monte Malone, Senior Vice-President of A&R Worldwide and Seymour Stein, vice-president of Warner Bros Records and founder of legendary label Sire Records.

The symposium sessions were packed to overflowing. The seminar audience, though, was dominated by youngsters, all bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and eager to learn how to become a (hip-hop) star. We saw far fewer faces from music education, and from genres such as traditional music and gospel.

A young audience at the Imbizo exhibition

A young audience at the Imbizo exhibition

That was probably a pity, since both those genres are far larger than hip-hop – and gospel, nationally, is larger than all other genres of South African popular music rolled into one. Both traditional music and gospel have made necessity the mother of invention, developing their own highly effective professional networks, product outlets and performance circuits way below the radar of conventional industry commentators. They have much grassroots wisdom to share.

But what the dominance of youth did demonstrate is that digital savvy – at least at an individual level – is far higher in a roomful of musically-inclined young people than in a boardroom full of distinguished arts and culture bureaucrats. Everybody was wired into some kind of device, running the gamut from beat-up feature phone to shiny laptop; busily Tweeting, photographing, recording, taking notes, checking data. Nobody needed the power, speed and reach of the digitally-transmitted MP3 music file explained to them – they just wanted to learn how to use it better.

Nobody suggested that hunting down taxi-rank cassette vendors was still the industry’s most important battle. Indeed, Power FM’s Unathi Memela described how the Bree Street rank could be converted into an ally by the simple expedient of making drivers sales agents for CDs, “without even beating anybody up.”

But if there was a decent grasp of ‘how?’, the audience remained eager to debate ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ And there we began to see, starkly, the contradictions within the ‘creative industry’ paradigm for thinking about the music industry.

Often in the same address, contributors wrestled with the conundrum of being both the anomic, solipsistic, successful ideal-type capitalist entrepreneur, and staying a decent human being. Industry consultant Vusi Leeuw summed up the paradox perfectly, although he was by no means the only speaker to exist inside it. He urged the need for respect between industry players – but followed that up with “And respect money too. If you’re doing something for love, go to charity and stay there (…) That’s not a bad thing; it’s capitalism. Ubuntu has gone out of the window and I’m grateful for that.”

A little hard-headed self interest is perhaps understandable. South Africa experienced a long period of righteous cultural volunteerism in the service of the struggle. That was followed by an equally long period when politicians in a now- liberated South Africa continued to demand that musicians donate their services under some slogan or another. A little cynicism is likely to be added to the mix when it becomes apparent that some of those politicians were at the same time enthusiastically filling their own pockets.

The danger of talking about music within the music bubble is forgetting that many of the industry’s problems and challenges are not unique to the industry. They reflect the society around us. That society is shaped by political choices. And it doesn’t always have to be this way.

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Percy Mabandu - Writer

Percy Mabandu – Writer

Music is not only a commodity to be bought and sold; a thing of price rather than value. It is wholly legitimate that aspiring musicians learn to do business in a more structured and efficient way to pay the bills and feed their families. But music is also the expression of hopes, dreams, fears and desires. Writer Percy Mabandu reminded us, in his readings from his forthcoming book on Winston Mankunku Ngozi that marketability is not the only starting-point for making great music. Yakhal’Inkomo spoke to millions as the top-selling album of its year because it crystallised the shared agony and yearning of “the black man’s pain” – not how things go better with a Coke. Malone urged “You shouldn’t be in it for the money; your main goal should be the passion for music.” Stein, at the end of a wide-ranging set of reminiscences that began with listening to legendary radio DJ Alan Freed back in his childhood Brooklyn home in the 1950s, reflected “I love what I do…” and urged aspiring musicians not to seek glib formulae, but “have the courage of your convictions.”

Music is not only a commodity to be bought and sold; a thing of price rather than value. It is wholly legitimate that aspiring musicians learn to do business in a more structured and efficient way to pay the bills and feed their families. But music is also the expression of hopes, dreams, fears and desires. Writer Percy Mabandu reminded us, in his readings from his forthcoming book on Winston Mankunku Ngozi that marketability is not the only starting-point for making great music. Yakhal’Inkomo spoke to millions as the top-selling album of its year because it crystallised the shared agony and yearning of “the black man’s pain” – not how things go better with a Coke. Malone urged “You shouldn’t be in it for the money; your main goal should be the passion for music.” Stein, at the end of a wide-ranging set of reminiscences that began with listening to legendary radio DJ Alan Freed back in his childhood Brooklyn home in the 1950s, reflected “I love what I do…” and urged aspiring musicians not to seek glib formulae, but “have the courage of your convictions.”

Music organizer Akhio Kawahito reflected that the average life-span of a hip-hop artist in the market was “perhaps three years.” Mankunku began playing (piano) in 1950 aged seven. He was still playing (saxophone) more than half a century later, short months before his death. Maybe taking the longer musical view helps in getting a few priorities right?

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Robert Glasper visits his favourites while Nduduzo Makhathini sings his own songs – but both pianists have the music covered AUGUST 23, 2015

sisgwenjazz Blog

Sis Gwen Ansell

Sis Gwen Ansell

A long time ago – well, around the early 1990s – jazz performances in Joburg often featured more than their fair share of covers. They were usually covers of South African originals: Laukutshon’Ilanga, Nytilo Ntyilo and the like. Nevertheless, it is easy to forget now how dramatic has been the explosion in the past quarter-century of new, original, local repertoire. These days, a stage version of Laukutshon’Ilanga at somewhere like The Orbit is a rarity; to succeed, artists don’t just need their own sound and skill, they need their own music too.

Listening to the Ground

Listening to the Ground

Pianist Nduduzo Makathini is in no danger of failing that test. To his two 2014 albums Mother Tongue and Sketches of Tomorrow, he has now added a 16-track double album, Listening to the Ground (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/nduduzomakhathini3 ). It is a big collection not only in scope and imagination, but also in sound. Makhathini’s core trio – on this outing comprising Magne Thormodsæter on bass and longtime companion Ayanda Sikade on drums – is augmented by other impressive voices, including reedman Karl-Martin Almqvist, trumpeter Robin Fassie Kock, percussionist el Hadj Ngari Ndong and the voice of Omagugu Makhathini.

Nduduzo Makhathini. Credit: Standard Bank

Nduduzo Makhathini. Credit: Standard Bank

The material ranges widely, from the richly patterned pan-African groove of Lagos Blues and King Fela to the disassembled and reconstructed mbaqanga of From an Old Bag of Mkhumbane, with stops at church, traditional community, avant-garde jazz club and family along the way.

Makhathini is a highly individual composer. While the rolling, sombre introduction to Supreme Light reminds us that the inspirational shadow of Abdullah Ibrahim is never too far from any South African pianist, the rest of the tune goes in a very different, edgier direction. For You is a classic mid-paced ballad that might have been written to get dancers out on the floor. It also shows off nicely the pianist’s virtuosity. As for the Mkhumbane tune, when I heard it live it did get the dancers out for some far more old-school South African revels, and looks set fair to become an audience-request favourite.

Listening to the Ground feels more polished than the 2014 releases – one of the advantages that the resources of the Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz award brings is time to concentrate on the music. To underline that point, the album revisits an earlier track, Imvunge for two minutes of intense, helter-skelter exploration that distills the essence of that quirky theme. As both player and composer, Makhathini is now a formidable force in new South African music, and this album should be travelling far and wide to announce that fact.

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Robert Glasper's new album Covered (Blue Note)

Robert Glasper’s new album Covered (Blue Note)

While South African players are reveling in the freedom to compose for their own recordings, American pianist Robert Glasper has made his latest release, Covered (Blue Note) the occasion – as its title implies – to visit music from some other people as well as himself. In a straight-up jazz trio format, he works with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid: the players with whom he launched his Blue Note jazz career a decade ago, before he gathered a hip-hop following too.

The dozen-song selection is eclectic (“A mix of new and old songs that I love,” Glasper calls them), from old chestnut Stella by Starlight to I Don’t Even Care from Black Radio 2, from Joni Mitchell to Radiohead, and more. Most beautiful for me was Glasper’s version of Jhene Aiko Chilombo’s The Worst, which you can sample on Glasper’s website at http://www.robertglasper.com More bits of cover material pop up in his own In Case You Forgot, peppered with quotes including Time After Time.

It doesn’t really matter what genre label you hang around Glasper’s neck, he is a sensitive and imaginative player who always follows the most intriguing paths a tune presents. I Don’t Even Care is here a fragile packet of musical surprises; In Case You Forgot, almost a fugue. By contrast Stella has been, in his own words “flipped and re-harmonised to make it more digestible.” It sounds like one of the old masters – maybe Bill Evans? – except…not. It’s definitely Glasper, creating from a 1944 tune something that 2015 audiences can feel.

There are voices on the album too. Glasper treats the gig as if he were in an intimate club, conversing with the audience, taking on board a self-aware rap about survival from elder statesman Harry Belafonte, and orchestrating the conscious, poignant, children’s voices that interlock on I’m Dying of Thirst, the final track: a protest against the racist waste of African-American lives.

Glasper has spoken (http://www.motherjones.com/media/2015/06/robert-glasper-covered-interview ) of the beauty he finds in repetition and simplicity. This album has both: the repetition of groove and intricate patterning, and the simplicity of a gorgeous, un-ornamented piano line that can break your heart.

Robert Glasper

Robert Glasper

“I missed the piano,” Glasper has said. “I feel like people forget I’m a piano player.” They never could, but in some of those more texturally crowded (and essentially collective) hip-hop contexts, our ears had to search for his sound. For those of us who missed those beautiful lines, Covered inspires a heartfelt ‘Welcome back’.

Composing, and interpreting music composed by another, are two different musical skills. Not every player has both in equal measure. Coltrane or Miles Davis could make you hear a simple, silly pop tune in a startlingly fresh way, with a wholly different emotional impact, through interpretation alone (watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bga8gFkDLIg ). So while we revel in the compositional riches that a player such as Makathini can bring us, Glasper’s album is a welcome reminder that we need to cherish our great interpreters too.

 

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