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Toon Roos Quartet’s rag doll effect – a highlight performance at NAF 2016

Here’s a Dutch saxophonist who really made me just melt away like hot putty in my seat! At times, I wondered if I had died and gone to heaven. Toon Roos and his band looked like ordinary chaps who might play ordinary jazz. Nope. Roos’s own aura reverberated around the stage as he pulled off inventive, and sometimes quirky, arrangements to certain tantalizing American jazz standards that spoke about the important…..love…..

Toon Roos at NAF2016: CuePix/NAF2016

Toon Roos at NAF2016: CuePix/NAF2016

Known for playing lyrical and funky jazz that grooves to the moment, Roos took us on an escapade into unfamiliar twists and turns. “I Fall in Love Too Easily” spoke reality; Dutch bassist Hein van de Geyn, now an implant on South African soil, slid his bass lithfully into what seemed as hopelessness. I came out as a wobbly rag doll. “Straight No Chaser” displayed masterful arrangements, but “Body and Soul” turned a sleepy ballad on Roos’s tenor sax into another blanket-hugging rendition, again with Hein’s double bass solo exuding the mellow, the expressive, and always the gentle. As many musicians do, Roos wrote “Fading Star’ for a relative, his mother long passed, and offered a beautiful slow ballad in tribute. My dollishness was awakened with the last song by Roos boasting a happy and melodic Brazilian beat. Could improvisational jazz be any better?

Toon Roos Quartet: CuePix/NAF2016

Toon Roos Quartet: CuePix/NAF2016

Roos has played with the greats of Joe Zawinul, John Scofield, Toots Thielemans, Steely Dan, Ravi Coltrane, and Art Blakey. The list is endless. No wonder he’s also a funk master, having a vocal project with drummer Manu Katche who also plays with Sting and Joni Mitchell. Eleven years ago, Roos and his Quartet performed at Capetown’s North Sea Jazz Festival. The man has credentials, as do current band members. He’s been compared to Saxophonist Wayne Shorter by contemporaries, but Roos is really beyond comparison. I would fly to Europe to hear this man again, but more credentialed and less raggedy dollish.

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Jazz trumpeter Darren English imagines hope in debut album “Imagine Nation”, with tributes to Nelson Mandela

Capetownian trumpeter, Darren English, kicks off his debut album by Hot Shoe Records (2016) with an original, “Imagine Nation”, a call to youth to make a better day! The first of a three part suite, it’s a melodic song mostly in the minor keys, and shows Darren’s wide range of tones on his trumpet.

imagine-nation-by-darren-english

Nostalgically, I still  ‘imagine’ those Monday night jazz jam sessions at Cape Town’s Swingers when 15 year old Darren, wearing his Beatles hairdo, and always accompanied by his indefatigably supportive father, Trevor,  would silence the packed crowd by his trumpet wizardry. We knew we had another South African catch of a musician who would go places. Indeed he has, 11 years later, cutting this debut album, after having finished his Master’s degree at Georgia State University in Atlanta where he continues to teach jazz studies and perform with various groups in USA. Hence, my affectionate ‘Darren’ reference.

“Body and Soul” presents a rather interesting start with a duo between a bowed double bass and Darren’s muted trumpet. It seems he has deliberately made his trumpet sound flat, confident, no frills technique, no vibratos. A simple rendition of an ole classic.

Smooth runs characterize Darren’s offerings as he faultlessly scales his instrument’s prowess with dignity and pureness. You’d think he’s been playing for decades!

The faster paced “Bebop”, a Dizzy Gillespie classic, displays a fluid trumpet with clean runs and boppish attitude. Drums and bass click away, heralding Darren’s pace, with a lovely solo by bassist Billy Thorton. The even faster paced “What a Little Moonlight Can Do’ introduces Grammy song lark, Atlanta-based Carmen Bradford, who shows off her impressive credentials behind her bebop vocals. I hesitate to compare such uniqueness with other greats, but I must say, her scat, tonation, and jazzy pitch brings about memories of Carmen McRae and Nancy Wilson for me. Her mood control in “Skylark” excelled.

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The album mellows its pace with a moving and emotional presentation of Nelson Mandela’s wise words from radio interviews, as he brought South Africa’s democracy forward, with advice. ‘Pledge for Peace’, a second Darren original as part of the ‘Imagine Nation’ theme, supports imagining a nation leading a peaceful parade towards responsible freedoms. This song carefully mixes interviews with interplays between trumpet and tenor sax, all which fill the sound space with sunshine and hope, but with caution.

Midway in the album is the third song of the ‘Imagine Nation’ theme, “The Birth” which appropriately describes Darren’s longing for a new nation free of the apartheid past. A long piece, almost 12 minutes, it contains impressive trumpet runs, syncopation with rhythmic gaps of sound, off beats, behind beats, etc. Greg Tardy’s tenor sax is electric. This piece is full of conversation, dipping a lot into fast bebop, then softer slower ballad moods punctuated with horn dialogues….signifying no births are ‘easy’ or smooth. A very ambitious original.

Kenny Banks, Jr’s piano in the Frank Loesser song, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”, provides classic bebop thrills along side Darren’s muted and even accompaniment . This duo piece is a real hit in the album!

“Bullet in the Gunn”, another original and a tribute to another trumpet mentor, Russsell Gunn, features blistering trade-offs between Darren’s trumpet and the wailing sax of Greg Tardy in occasionally frantic conversations.

The last track, “Cherokee”, presents fast runs by each musician, feasting on and sparring with each other’s energies, but they tended to blend into one men-otanous sound piece for me. I’m not one for blaring horns, but I felt these frantic snorts turned a reputable classic into a blah blah race run. On the other hand, having heard Joe Gransden’s trumpet at jazz jams in Atlanta several years ago, which the younger Darren also attended, it is obvious that Gransden’s style and wit has firmly rubbed off onto Darren’s technique. The two men simply gel and Darren knows it, and is proud to have such a mentor.

Darren-English-Harley-sepia

Darren English remains a formidable ‘young gun’ far beyond just South Africa’s jazz scene, and has been blessed with craft and skills to carry him holistically into a successful future. I am also very proud to say that Darren’s success carries with it a notable humility, yet adventure, in learning to be better. Just better! Watch his space!

See my December 2014 blurb: http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2014/12/04/carol-martin-chat-with-cape-jazz-trumpeter-darren-english/
The album features: Darren English (tpt); Kenny Banks Jr. (pno); Billy Thornton (bs); Chris Burroughs (dms) + Carmen Bradford (vcl); Greg Tardy (tenor sax); Russell Gunn (tpt); Joe Gransden (tpt).

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Jazz pianist Bokani Dyer cuts ‘anti-genre’ album, “World Music”

Twenty nine year old Bokani Dyer, born in Botswana of a Kalanga Motswana mother (whence, he got his name, ‘Bokani’) and a white musician father, Steve, who was living in exile during apartheid, has two SAMRO awards to his name. He also recently performed from his new album, “World Music”, at the 2015 Grahamstown National Arts Festival which brought the world closer to what Dyer calls his “anti-genre” music. This was part of his Prohelvetia southern Africa tour with his Swiss Quartet, being connections started during his 2014 residency at the Bird’s Eye Jazz Club in Basel. These original songs in this, his third, album were composed over several years.

Let’s see what this man with a message means in this eclectic assortment of sounds.

CM: ‘World Music’ – I’m hearing various genres…. Where is Bach?
BD: Bach appears on the first notes of the album, in “Waiting, Falling”, composed while I was practicing preludes and fugues, and types of harmonies and structures of melody. This study led me to him. The title refers to the musical aspect of phrases, and contours of music, like waiting for the beat to come, then making a note fall. Lee-Anne Fortuin is on vocals.

Bokani Dyer with Marlon Witbooi & Shane Cooper

Bokani Dyer with Marlon Witbooi & Shane Cooper

CM: Yes, with an even-toned, almost meditative spirit about her…. I liked “Vuvuzela” which starts off with a Latin sound, followed by your impressive piano runs. Buddy Wells’ tenor sax comes with a post-bebop swing. The two saxes and one trumpet sound very much together.
BD: This song was written during the Soccer World Cup period in 2010. It has a jubilant, South African spirit about it.

CM: Yes, it was sassy and fun. The repetitious 3 bar refrain does remind one how monotonous listening to a one-note vuvuzela can be! Next, I found “Reflections” mild and reflective, almost funereal. This mellow mood swings directly into “Outro” (composed with vocalist Moleshe) with repetitive vocal chants accompanying the same reflective chord pattern of your piano, aka vuvuzela. But it was “Transit” that I found most interesting. One hears Arendse’s guitar runs and plucks which set the tone for this piece, while the piano scurries and hops over these plucks. This is a bouncy piece, again showing your versatile chord structures.
BD: The beginning of this song is Herbie Hancock-ish which is a feel I like. It then moves into other influences, from Bheki Mseleku’s ballad style to the Mozambiquan rhythms.

CM: I can definitely hear that Mseleku sound in your chords. The synthesizer wails out the tune with drummer, Marlon Witbooi, keeping the pace consistent. I liked this transit – from piano to synthesizer.
BD: Yes, it’s my love of the synthesizer here and electronic sounds. I played it alot when performing with Jimmy Dludlu and loved being able to bend notes which can’t be done on a piano. I love that, to make a note expressive and ‘slide’, like the guitars do, and make the note sing. It’s anti-genre music! It fragments the ballad.

CM: You like spontaneity…..
BD: Yes. For instance, in “The Artist”, which was written in blurbs and sketches composed over time, it feels like a classic jazz ballad. When I go to jazz concerts, I get thought patterns while listening. Then the inspiration of the moment comes, like with this song.

CM: That’s what I call ‘jazz’: inspirations of the moment, with a response, in spontaneity, unwritten. Your “interlude: See My People Through” seems to be a wonderful frenetic sounding story of migration, almost gospel-like as appeals to the Almighty are made. There’s something hopeful and seeking in the message. It’s short but then swings into the next funky song, “Recess”, with the drum continuing that spiritual theme. Marlon’s drum is always behind the beat, giving that funky layback sound again, like a soul fusion. There was the resolution. Really nice!
BD: This was my fusion piece, with layback R&B sounds.

CM: Then in “Keynote”, we are brought back to a traditional 4/4 be-bop style. One hears a seasoned Belair alto sax pounding out impressive runs and messages. The song moves into a Middle Eastern flair in a minor key, an interesting juxtaposition with an American bebop.
BD: I was listening alot to Kenny Garrett and Terence Blanchard whose influences relate to this song.

CM: Your trumpeter, Robin Fassie-Cock, offers nice runs in “Master of Ceremony” along with Buddy’s sax.
BD: Robin is young, only 22 years old in his fourth year at University, but has a marvellous future ahead of him. He just left for a year study in Norway a few weeks ago.

CM: With “African Piano – Water”, this is a cute pluck pluck dittie with paper covering piano strings, almost like a beginner’s piano 101 with chordal harmony and a playful beat. It sounds like water splashing over rocks!
BD: I wanted to give an Mbira sound, like one hears in Zimbabwe. I am using an overdub, layering piano sounds which echo the effects of water. Then, the last piece on the album, “Motho wa Modimo”, follows that same Africanness of purpose. It means ‘person of God’ literally, but is used in Setwana when something of gravity happens.

CM: This is a solemn piece ending the album. Personally, I would have preferred a more upbeat swing to end this eclectic mix of sounds presented, but ‘Motho’ does offer meditative resolution to messages earlier presented.

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Inside the CD jacket sleeve is a fascinating collage of concepts through words and phrases connoting issues faced by humanity’s masses: “ten million midwives carrying fresh fruit”, “twenty six kora strings to pluck”, “twenty six thousand Somali sheep on their way to slaughter”, “fifty seven thousand car guards queuing for their salary”, “fifteen years of questions between voodoo and black messiah”. Reading this sleeve keeps you gripped with these little word bites that surround our global realities. It then became evident to me that Camerounian journalist and artist, DJ Ntone, from Chimeranga mazazine wrote this sleeve.

Bokani Dyer & Swiss Quartet at Straight No Chaser, Cape Town

Bokani Dyer & Swiss Quartet at Straight No Chaser, Cape Town

CM: Tell me about your projects with electronic music.
BD: I’ve been influenced by Vijay Iyer’s piano playing for its freshness, and Robert Glasper for his determination in sticking to the alternative. I’ve been listening alot to electronic music, particularly people like Alice Coltrane’s nephew, “Flying Lotus”, who produces instrumental-like hip hop grooves with rapping or real instruments. I am experimenting with vocalist Sakhile Moleshe who is part of the “Soul Housing” project, to make up our two-man band using laptop effects with vocals and keyboard only. Sakhile does all sorts of sounds vocally, which is why I include him in “World Music”.

CM: So this is like a beginning ‘world’ Episode, with Episodes 2 and 3 coming?
BD: The next step is to get more into electronic music, with no instruments. I want to produce sound, manipulate it, and open it up, make crazy sounds which are free flowing, outside of any performances. These sounds are present in the world I grew up in, and are present now, with sometimes chaos, stress, anxiety, joys, etc, so I want to harness them and experiment with that.

CM: What else is next?
BD: I think I want to carry this thread of the African piano further. I’d like to put together a collection of pieces played by two or three pianos at the same time, playing interlocking rhythms similar to what mbiras and balafons sound like. For now, I do it alone with a loop pedal. Also, Kyle Shepherd and I are experimenting; we played two pianos at last year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival. That worked like a dream! Because we’re both piano players, we don’t get a chance to play together. Our repertoire was half mine, half his, and all original material. He and I have spoken about doing a recording together.

CM: You’ve travelled outside the country. Where would you like to visit or go for mentoring and work with other musicians?
BD: I plan to use the rest of my SAMRO scholarship of 2013, preferably in New York. So I’m going to apply for an 01 visa to USA, and start identifying a mentor. Also, I’d like to network and find performance opportunities. In 2010, I visited New York and mentored for a few weeks with pianist, Jason Moran, which was very useful. When I visited London last year in November, performing at the London Jazz Festival, I was also able to perform with saxophonist Soweto Kinch. I have been very privileged to have Niki Froneman manage my recent Southern Africa tour with the Swiss Quartet this year, so I look forward to more of these opportunities.

CM: Have you recorded with your father, Steve?
BD: I was on his album, “Ubuntu Music”, which came out 3-4 years ago. We’re doing something together this weekend in JHB.

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Bokani Dyer will continue to have a special relationship not only with his piano, but with us listeners who find rest and calmness in his varied songs.

Published by his own Dyertribe Music, “World Music” features:
Bokani Dyer (piano, keyboards, synthesizer) Shane Cooper (double and electric bass) Marlon Witbooi (drums) Buddy Wells (tenor saxophone) Justin Bellairs (alto saxophone) Robin Fassie-Kock (trumpet) Sakhile Moleshe (vocals) Lee-Anne Fortuin (vocals) and John Hassan (percussion and vocals)

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The Bratislava Hot Serenaders and Bandakadabra, gig reviews at Edinburgh`s JBF

One is Slovakian, the other Italian, all high vibe, fun, and humorous, bringing period jazz dance music of 1920-30s alive under our festival tent. What a relief to have concerts with no loud electronic amplification. It didn’t exist back then! Both bands used only one mic. Bratislava`s 19 musicians presented a mix of Ellington Cotton Club songs current in that Harlem community, then moved us across the Atlantic to Slovakian tango and middle European dance music.

The age range of patrons attending this gig was hardly a curve, but rather a flat graph, my honest projection being about 85% of ages 60 plus. The sea of white heads and beards nicely matched the all- male band members` period black-tie costumes, lacquered hair styles, and manicured moustaches. Even the `girls`, the Hot Serenader Sisters who sang their rehearsed harmonies, standing close-faced at the one mic, added imagery to this period `live` documentary. It was indeed fun to watch what my parents had babbled about during my early growth years. The band unadornably played my favorites: Blue Moon, Moon Indigo, and Body and Soul.

With horns, reeds, piano, 3 violins, tuba and banjo all in firey sync, singers took turns at the one mic, sometimes thoughtfully pointing it towards instrumental soloists. I was waiting for them to break out into a Charlestown foot dance!

London`s BBC Dance Orchestra songs also featured. The very humorous renditions of the famous `The Broken Record` and the trumpeter MC`s `Hot Lips` left one laughing into Edinburgh`s rainy evening.

BANDAKADABRA provided a carnival atmosphere of 12 Italian brass, reeds, and drum players rumbling about the stage. Their slapstick humor mixed with period blues between the World Wars made for comic proportions as they banged out Balkan blues and Mediterranean marches. In white ruffled shirts, they acted out ineffective cat calls to the ladies unfortunate enough to sit in the front rows. These rumbling vagabonds truly awakened the kid in all of us without losing any authentic skills in delivering this timeless music.

These groups were such fun! I would go see them again anywhere.

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Compassion shines in this Cold World, gig review of Naomi Shelton

She was a heartland of blues, pounded out with such elegant style and timing. A seasoned wheelchair-bound Naomi Shelton and her Gospel band with bassist/bandleader Fred Thomas (of James Brown band of 1970s) and her 3 Queens delighted her warm standing ovation audience at this year’s Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival. She sang off her latest album, Cold War, thanks to Daptone Records (2014).

I was taken back to the Alabama blues groove native to Shelton, based in New York city for the past half century. Shelton knows the stage, and her Gospel team, along with her husky voice, knows how to reach your soul and tell you “what you done wrong”, like in her visionary `Sinner`song. Her messages that evening of 17 July painted the demise of humanity and human betrayal in our contemporary world.

Edinburgh`s horseshoe shaped St Andrews Square venue provided cramped seating typical of vibey festivals like this one, but gave choice for tables and a bar in the back for the serious listeners/drinkers. At first, the sound system whined, drowning out Shelton`s voice, but got sorted in the end. Shelton was relentless, belting out an Etta James song, `Love Come Along`, which brought lip movements from head bobbing listeners. The `Child is Hungry` remembered the funky beats of the early James Brown.

She moved us to another level, breaking out into a clapping high tempo 4/4 time gospel. The audience moved.

Her finale got the Euro audience on their feet with the funky gospel swing in `Lord, I’m Your Child`.

There was compassion, and revival, and hope as she smiles and throws her kisses reassuringly to us unworthy listeners. Ninety minutes of Shelton pushes you to church in a still redemptive Baptist gospel tradition, yet with secular respect. It was hard to hear anything else that night, other than wanting more of this sanctifying blues!

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An Interview with jazz guitarist Vuma Ian Levin about “Necessary Contradictions”

Another vibrant, well-skilled South African guitarist hit Capetown’s Straight No Chaser jazz club with his quintet made up of young European musicians. Vuma Levin has been schooling in Amsterdam and making a professional life for himself, but well remembers his own home shores as his debut album suggests. “The Spectacle of An-Other” contains his original compositions which speak messages I like: Through cultural and national identities, how do we empower marginalised Black South African histories post 1994 to integrate into various spaces and experiences without stigma or enclavist mentalities so prominent in the past?

Quintet album cover

Quintet album cover & promotion

His evening at SNC drew a relatively large crowd, as do well publicized artists passing through. Levin is not just ‘passing through’ though. He participates in the Standard Bank Youth Jazz Festival (SBYJF) in Grahamstown beginning July, and will hang around our shores for a while during his study break with the Amsterdam Conservatory of Music where he’s working towards his master’s in jazz guitar performance.

Informed by Levin’s facebook page promotional materials and this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtJuVskXjc8, I queried Levin on what interested him in cultural musicology and what he meant by wanting to liberate musical forms from jargonistic and Euro-centric definitions of what constitutes ‘African music’ or ‘jazz’. My interview with him on 29 June 2015 in Cape Town caught him just before his travels to Grahamstown where, in 2009, he was chosen for the National Youth Jazz Band.

Born in Swaziland from a Jewish South African father in exile with the ANC, and a Swazi mother, Levin could settle back in South Africa only after the new dispensation gave permissions for his parents’ mixed marriage. His father has acted as a DG in government while his mother worked as a consultant with the Department of Education. Settled in Johannesburg, it was only when Levin attended the Sacred Heart College and sang in the school choir that he started his musical training. At age 14, he picked up guitar, watched how buskers on the street fingered their guitars, and sang along with them. Formal musical training continued at the Tswane University of Technology where he studied with the late Johnnie Fourie for 1 year, and other noted jazz musicians.

CM: You talk in the South African context about trying to salvage music from the “pre-colonial, colonial, and post colonial” periods that have marginalized black music. What do you mean by pre-colonial?

VL: That’s a very hard term to define as there’s no written account of what existed in pre colonial times. That’s not to say that the only way to access history is through the written word. History can be encoded in cultural artifacts – song and dance, written items. One of the early projects of the colonial period was to try to neutralize African culture, a concerted effort to vilify it as needing ‘civilizing’, to rid the natives of their traditional practices, which were central to dispersing history through oral means, etc. This effectively limited access to this history. At the end of the day, the pre colonial history is hard to define as we don’t have access to it, unless we can salvage something of the traditional. From the Euro centric standpoint, which looks to written history, there’s none of that in African precolonial life.

CM: When you go to the colonial period, what do you consider ‘colonial’ music?
VL: I consider that music basically from 1652 onwards , when the first settlers arrived and settled, up to 1994. Obviously, that’s a very broad category with a lot of different phases but for me, that is what the colonial moment is for me.

Vuma Levin &

Vuma Levin & Bernard van Rossum (sax) at SNC

CM: Something came out of that colonial period?
VL: Yes, basically what was key was the interaction between new colonial settlers and the people already living in southern Africa, or the indigenous peoples. This interaction took hold particularly during the time when King Shaka was defending and conquering lands or borders of expansion. With this increased interaction, between various ethnic groups within South Africa, you develop a trade in culture, sometimes imposed, like with the Christian missionaries. Sometimes it’s more organic and fluid. The key thing is that whether art forms are forced or organic interactions, they change, even artificially. Even in the 1980s you had your Winston Mankunku’s and Chris McGregor’s travelling with their music in Europe, so there was that exchange. And the effects from these exchanges are different at every stage of history.

CM: What about the present?
VL. Post-colonial? Imbedded in the term is the understanding that even though formal colonialism has ended, the power relations which colonialism inculcated in us are so very much in existence nowadays.

CM: Power, yes. There is now a majority power in this country. Do you think the cultural and musical art forms of that majority are coming alive?
VL: I think it’s hopeful, but I still think there’s a western hegemony on cultural production – a white western one. Through media and business and other institutions, the iconography, I guess, of colonialism remains intact. It’s the same in music as well. So I think there’s concerted effort, particularly by young music professionals in this country to try to break those boundaries. Like: Kyle Shepherd, Bokani Dyer, Thandi Ntuli, Marcus Wyatt,

CM: Talk more about Carlo Mombelli and your experience or influence with him. I don’t see Carlo as being terribly ‘indigenous’ although you have dedicated a composition to Carlo. How would you describe his influence on you?

VL: For me, Carlo was a very early influence. I listened to his music and was inspired at a young age. It’s important to realise that terms like ‘authentic’ and ‘indigenous’ are dangerous terms to use in South African context . The moment that a South African subject takes something from the outside world and uses it in a non-reactionary way to express themselves, it becomes a ‘South African’ thing. So English, and French, and Portugese – all these languages are African languages. They’ve been appropriated by people here and used as a way of articulating their sense of self, and I consider this the same way with music. I consider Carlo’s music as authentically South African as would be a Xhosa composer. They are both citizens of this country appropriating something from the outside and using that as a means of expressing what it means to be a South African for himself, and in an organic way.

CM: Carlo’s stay in Germany perhaps meant he absorbed other influences, but maybe his own infusion of African-ness in his music might not be seen by European listeners in quite the same way as he would have liked.
VL: It’s basically about demystifying Africans because from the European standpoint, there’s a mystery about what it means to be ‘African’.

CM: Which is what Kyle and others are trying to do. Which brings me to your role in trying to demystify this African-ness. This is an important part of your workshops here, to try to correct people’s gahgah about: “Oh, here’s our boy coming back home to his roots” type of response from people. We all are born somewhere, but this doesn’t mean we have to get stuck in our ‘roots’. I have your quote I’d like to clarify: ‘denigration of historical and contemporary South African music’…… What did you mean by this? Isn’t the world trying to bring back this older music of another time?
VL: Well, I think there is this effort to bring it back, but the way it is done is highly problematic. Since Edward Said wrote “Orientalism”, terms such as exoticism and primitivism have entered the cultural lexicon, and people are not sensitive to the fact that they are largely engaging in these practices when they try to empower African forms, basically. So the idea is: If you’re going to book an ‘African band’, already you may have a preconceived notion of what constitutes an African band. You know how to market that. And if anybody falls outside of that strongly preconceived notion, you’re less likely to market them. For instance, how do you market somebody like Bokani Dyer whose music draws from jazz pianist Robert Glasper who doesn’t play African art forms? There’s an alliance between capital and the colonially inherited notions of what constitutes ‘Africans’. It is only fair that those people who continue to engage in these traditional practices, and who have been marginalized in the past, be given space to do their thing.

CM: So ‘traditional’ doesn’t always mean ‘in the past’…?
VL: Traditional artists themselves are often a lot more nuanced with contemporary sounds and narratives than people think . They’re human beings so can carry messages…. It’s a bit de-humanizing to have this preconceived package of beliefs about who they are.

Levin concludes:
So this is an essential feature about what my project is about. These go hand in hand: nuancing African identity and empowering marginalized histories. It is a contradiction because on the one hand, you’re saying there’s no such thing as traditional African-ness, and on the other hand, there IS such a thing and we need to empower that. It’s a necessary contradiction to draw in.

CM: The contradiction helps to empower through debate by providing that debate. It requires a sense of history and social propriety and intelligent debate, doesn’t it?
VL: Exactly.

CM: You have on the one hand local South African influences with people who reside here, whatever the expansion of their music art form is. Some are moving on with their sound forms; others are still stuck with what they know best and in the past. Then you have the ‘diasporic’ influences. Who are these Diaspora you speak about?
VL: I think one definition of ‘Diaspora’ is a large body of people who move from one part of the globe to another. Diasporic musicians can include Africans who have left their African areas. This doesn’t only include musicians but the Africans carrying their intellectual diasporic traditions, like Chinua Achebe, Kofi Agawu (a Ghanaian musicologist). But I’m referring also to the music itself, especially in the age of globalization, there’s increased motion in music. It’s moving around, and again allied to capitalism, not knowing really where the music is coming from. When I was 13 years old, I listened to Radio Head and Massive Attack – that was my music foundation and the music I loved most. So this was diasporic music, which doesn’t only refer to Africans moving about.

CM: That’s an interesting concept of migration, of people migrating without being ‘migrants’. We all are migrating in our social, cultural, and intellectual forms because there’s a world of information out there. This is great. But it’s also overload. People are getting confused – about what they’re hearing, etc. And terms we use are not catching up with the informational overload we’re experiencing. If you have terminologies that are not catching up, then you get stuck with jargon which influences people’s psychology, and the informational ‘box’ effect. But this is just human nature, isn’t it?
VL: Indeed.

CM: How do you break through this? It’s interesting your European band is playing a type of sound you’re trying to cultivate.
VL: The musicians are craftsmen and creators in their own right. The music I compose has such a strong basis in western harmony, just to be publically clear. I consider myself to have been very well colonized in that regard. My ears are very oriented to western harmony and because we all speak in this western harmonic language it becomes possible to compose songs and interact on that front, particularly with that jazz tradition , from Parker and bebop to contemporary modern jazz up until now. Secondly, we have a shared harmonic language that comes out of the classical music tradition and has been elaborated upon by various jazz artists. Because we have these common points of reference, it makes it possible for us to engage in the conversation.

CM: Good point….common points of reference. Are you planning on returning to South Africa more permanently now?
VL: If you asked me this two years ago, when I was finishing my degrees, I would have said, yes, I’m coming back. But with professional obligations, and with things happening in Europe to my favour, I would say, yeah, I’ll come back at some other time. I would try to set up some trans-continental arrangements in the meantime.

CM: If you were to spend time in South Africa, what would you want to do here?
VL: One has to be realistic about establishing networks and business outlets. I would be very interested in working with local musicians. I would also love a job teaching at a University, and having private students. In Europe, I’ve been lucky with several gigs per month. The band, Aurelio Project, led by a Mozambiquan, has included me in their tours.

CM: Who influences you in your improvisations? Who do you look up?
VL: Carlo, Marcus, Africa Mkize, John Davis, Kevin Davidson, Massive Attacks, Debussy, Ravel and other classical music. The atonality of Schoenberg…..

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Vuma Levin plays at the Grahamstown Youth Jazz Festival and also at the Fringe venues.  His quintet includes Bernard van Rossum (Tenor Sax, Spain), Lennart Altgenug (Piano, Germany), Marco Zenini (Bass, Italy) and Jeroen Batterink (Drums, The Netherlands).

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Young American jazz saxophonist releases debut album with Capetownians

An Interview with Tristan James Weitkamp by C. Martin

“Flash in the Pan” , the debut album of 23 year old Tristan James Weitkamp, talks about issues of the heart brought on by contemporary social incongruities. Here’s a young jazz artist with a message. A native of Portland, Oregon, Tristan has crafted his Cape Town band, called New Horizons, to produce an exciting assortment of home-grown, South African-influenced songs with stories. The album will be released this June by Milestone Studios followed by gigs in Cape Town on 12 (UCT/SACM C7) and 18 June (Straight No Chaser).

I interviewed the band members during their studio ‘shoot’ and found some very creative and ambitious guys and gals willing to give their all. There are a host of guest artists performing in this ambitious album: Ludwe Danxa plays keyboard; Revon October plays electric bass; Ndumiso Manan and Diana Neil on vocals; Dizu Plaatjies on pipe flute; James McClure and Marco Maritz on trumpets; Georgie Jones on baritone sax; Tammy Breakey on flute; and Norwegian guitarist, Gorm. The poet is Kgmotso Malele.

But firstly, let’s hear from the young maestro himself.

TJW: I had studied music at college in Portland, Oregon, but wanted a break to study African affairs more closely. One professor I had in Oregon was Darrell Grant, a pianist who accompanied Better Carter band, inspired me to explore the world more when my family held house concerts featuring Darrell. This led to my applying to the University of Cape Town (UCT) for African Studies. I also knew UCT had a vibrant music school which is why I brought my sax. So, my family helped raise my funds for an expensive tuition at UCT. I also jammed with musicians and never dreamt I would end my year cutting my first jazz album with these wonderful musicians!

Tristan at Piano Bar

Tristan at Piano Bar

CM: I understand you have strong messages to convey in your album, like in your song, “Coffee Stains”.

TJW: My most authentic composition is ‘Coffee Stains on Cardboard Boxes’, which is a duet between my sax and the double bassist. There’s a story on this from Prestwich Memorial, about how building developers found graves of slaves and exhumed them to build a new building, and doing this digging without consideration for the slave’s ‘rights’ to a dignified burial.

CM: [I thought to myself: How does a 23 year old ‘white’ American boy, coming to Africa, learn and incorporate a profoundly significant but little known historical incident (at least to average CapeTownians) about the treatment of slaves, dead or alive?]

TJW: The corpses of slaves were stored in these shelves, in this building, like they would be stored on a slave ship. I was in their mausoleum but the frontage was actually a coffee shop, like a corporate business. I think it’s a horrible modern day example of slavery, and how we do not take interest in what these people represented. Their memorial grave is being supported by money generated by coffee! That’s why I wrote this song, about coffee stains on cardboard boxes.

CM: You sound quite politically aware as an artist wanting to send out your concerns in your music. Have you been an activist of sorts?

TJW: Not really, but I’ve grown frustrated with the unchanging nature of our world. I’m seeing proposals made by Martin Luther King’s movement back in the 60s are not being achieved 60-70 years later. During College, I took several courses in African studies, and this enthused me to study further, which is why I came to UCT/CapeTown. I became exposed to hurtles and blocks to democracy in this country. I was seeing issues not much differently from other parts of the world. I arrived right after Mandela’s funeral. I’m a political animal, and am aware of the economic crisis. But studying African history and music – and political and social issues in South Africa – woke me up. UCT is a microcosm of the country. Political and social protests are being held amongst students and faculty/administration.

Through the African Studies department, I learned about the Prestwich Mortuary. Also, one visiting South American lecturer, Walter Mignolo, inspired me to understand how colonialism is a persistent trait, spawned out of the feudal and renaissance times, hand in hand with technological advances. History is not linear but vertical, one layer being built upon another. Apartheid is like this, accumulative history using ‘race as a way to measure….worth. He said, if we are concerned with race today, then it means we are still colonialists. If we did not make a big deal about ‘race’, then the subject would not be important and the issues would fall away. He talked about how you go about de-colonizing the human psyche because colonialism lives in the brain. We have to de-program our minds – get rid of the propaganda instilled in us.

CM: So where did you get “Flash in the Pan” as your album title?

TJW: Flash in the Pan comes from the time when firearms were muzzle-loaded, but nothing came to fruition. Big sensationalism with no real results. Like having a movement to remove Rhodes statue, to combat the neo-colonialism in the modern context, but when it happened, it only removed the statue. This created conversation, but nothing really changes. History remains. If you want to change, then change laws moving contemporary society along, not tear down historical statues.

Tristan at Tagoges

Tristan at Tagores

CM: Tell me how you chose your songs.

TJW: “Blackbird” by Paul McCartney, is a song he composed to convey the opportunity to fly, amidst the 1950s and 1960s black consciousness movement. Another song is about a meatgrinder – is a Cape jive tune with an American jazz twist. I was told by a friend from Delft that his home was like a meatgrinder in the township, because of the amounts of crime, people fighting with each other, grabbing what they can. It turns people around, grinds them up. Then another song, “Impetus”, is a force that sparks something, moves the boulder. ‘Flash in the Pan’ , a ballad tune I wrote, starts out as a Cape jive gospel intro, then completely changes. The album continues to deal with social issues, like ‘Coffee Stains’ with young bassist, Sean. The spoken word hip hop song has poet, Kgmotso Malele who starts off: “Silence is the loudest form of noise….”. When you get towards the end of the album, the ‘Blue Boat Home’, which comes from the Universalist hymnbook, has beautiful lyrics about a man’s ride from earth (the Blue Boat), travelling through space on a sea of stars , to reach ‘home’. This song was played at my grandfather’s funeral because it’s about going home to our final resting place. I wrote a jazz arrangement of it which is sung by a wonderful Cape Town singer, Diana Neil. Then comes “Down the River” and “Welcome Home” which I dedicated to my grandmother who is 100 years old now, and to my late grandfather, both who urged me to pursue music. “Here we are, all at home; without ruthlessness, without greed, …..”

CM: You leave South Africa this July to return home. What are your future plans?

TJW: I will go back to music, and prefer conducting. I like conducting an orchestra with woodwinds and choirs. New Horizons is not meant to be just a South African initiative; I plan to release the album in the States with another band. I’d like Zoe, my singer here, to come and do the release with me and give it a South African flavour.

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So who is New Horizons? I interviewed members of the band, and found an eclectic mix of cultures, musical persuasions, attitudes, and experiences.

Singer and composer, Zoe Modiga, offers soulful gospel and blues sounds, all improvised carefully with the occasional scat. Her low voice and poise give her a mature air that defies her young self. At 21 years of age, and having come from teenage years studying at Gauteng’s National School of Arts (NSA) and studies at UCT Jazz Studies, she has remarkable sound, sincerity, and carriage on stage as well as in her delivery. No wonder several bands include her regularly as their vocalist, such as the seasoned Frank Paco and Bokani Dyer, and the Jo Kunniji Experiment. Having won the local GrandWest’s Open Jazz Mic competition last year, Zoe will probably move on to other sites of Gauteng for more exposure and experience and further study, even incorporating other loves, like cooking and photography, to her list of skills.

Drummer Andre Swartz grew up in Retreat in Cape Town and graduated from UCT’s Jazz Studies. He is now married to an American lady from Dallas, Texas, and moves between his two country homes. He presently fills the position of Head of Faculty of Music at the Campus of the Performing Arts in Woodstock, which started in 2006 and specializes in contemporary music, mostly the pop genre.

“I intentionally wanted to depart from the traditional bebop jazz to phrasing of African rhythms, particularly with contemporary African jazz, and show what commonalities exist between these different time and cultural periods. I have the kit drum doing one thing, and the snare drum doing another thing, like that to get the polyrhythms. For instance, I have a high tam and a low tam and the snare which fills in, and then a djembe which clicks in. “

Pianist Blake Hellaby, presently teaching at Cape Town’s Wynberg Boys High School, believes in ‘giving back. “I feel music is the freest form of expression and can affect the positive transformations in the Cape Flats on people’s lives. The people living on the Cape Flats have never been told that they can become anything they want to be. They’ve never been told, ‘You don’t have to be a cleaner.’ I feel there’s room in South Africa to improve people’s lives and jazz needs to carry this message without being accused of becoming ‘political’”. Blake feels that indigenous South African music is becoming extinct. “The Klopse aren’t playing their own music any more. They’re playing American pop.”

Tristan was an international exchange student with African music specialist, Dizu Plaatjie, last year, so Dizu understands Tristan’s ideas and his willingness to play South African jazz music. Dizu offers a R5 irrigation pipe flute to the album, thus boosting the authentic African pipe soundscape in some songs.

The youngest in the band is 19 year old Sean Sanby who plays double bass, and loved having the freedom to express his own reactions to Tristan’s stories. A first year student at UCT SACM, Sean has already participated in five Grahamstown Youth Jazz Festivals, and played in the National Schools Big Band in 2013 and 2014. He also plays 16 string guitar, and was a member of the Cape Town Youth Orchestra 2015 and the Artscape Youth Jazz Band this year.

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