“I play what I feel, not like with formal jazz,” warns pianist Blake Hellaby, as he explains to his album launch audience which packed Cape Town’s Waterfront Radisson Red hotel concert room. Just released album, # Not Jazz, explores its title’s irony about asking listeners to just chill out: “Zone out and chill; just allow the groove of the music to sway you!” We did this night, as we explored what is becoming a ‘Hellaby sound’ of note.
Composer, writer, and producer from Cape Town, Hellaby has diligently navigated through domestic musical idioms with South African bands (Standard Bank Schools Big Band), musicals (King Kong: A Jazz Opera), and festivals (National Arts Youth Jazz Festival), and to international sites (Oslo Jazz Festival, Berlin’s Young Euro Classic Festival). During his youth, playing in church and at community events, he sometimes faced a criticism from schoolmates of playing what they considered less serious soft, ‘smooth’ jazz. His live gig brought smiles and laughter at this reference; yet, the band’s execution of Hellaby’s version of ‘jazz’ awakened listeners to his skillful use of hard core funk, be-bop, grungy blues (thanks to Michael Bester’s guitar solos), and rock, all loosely packaged in a soulful improvisational style which Hellaby is making his own. His album, he notes, is “an attempt to find the fun and lighter side of jazz and instrumental music.”
And that’s the truth – Songs played live or digitally take the listener on Hellaby’s musical journey. The digital album is mostly instrumental, whereas his live performance on Thursday, 30 January, contained vocals, including his singing wife, Leigh-Ann, with whom he cut his debut album in 2016, New Beginnings, and vocalist Jesse Julies. “I wanted to add that contemporary element, to have the lyrics resonate with the pop music.”
In fact, Hellaby cut two digital albums – one instrumental, one with lyrics – and he intentionally mixed the two approaches during the live concert to give variation to what pop-jazz can sound like. Often, album song productions do not match live performances which unearth those sonic vibrations in one’s seat, live concerts risking an overabundance of amplified sound compared to the soft and easy-listening reverberations in a digital album. A sound engineer is challenged if Hellaby wants that easy, chill-out, yet funky sound at a live gig. Again, drums can overpower. Just a reminder.
The story line to the album reveals Hellaby’s playfulness: “A bunch of guys get together from Thursday to Sunday. The songs tease out their late night experiences and move into a chill on Sunday afternoon. “
This is a very listenable album producing a mindful, relaxing chill, particularly suitable for go-slow traffic jams. All the band members stand out: saxophonist Zeke Le Grange, currently studying in USA, shines with consistent clarity of runs and expression, particularly in “S.Y.B. (Shake Your Booty)” as does Ryan Truter’s guitar solo. Michael Bester’s bluesy guitar provides tone, feeling, and sense of purpose as he slides from bop to blues to slow rock. Listen to his twanging “Call-In” gospel blues. Stephen De Souza’s bass guitar and Lumanyano Mzi’s drums keep the various rhythms steady with mellow, yet strong supports. The advantages of digital mixing, as heard on Hellaby’s various keyboards in “Come Over” with organ, piano, and synth improvisations, is that percussion can be controlled. Mzi’s energetic drumming eloquently exhibits his enthusiasm in live performances, but becomes pleasantly subdued in the album, while driving the beats. In this, the album excels for its effective balancing of musicians’ techniques and styles to produce even outputs of melody and message.
Hellaby’s mixing of piano, keyboard, and synthesizer offers sly, whimsical, and bouncy sound journeys, particularly in “Trippy” and “Sunday Chillin“. He starts and ends the album with pleasantly punchy but brief groovy solos, stating his storyline honestly and purposefully. Songs in between speak of emotional conflicts, realisations, and maybe, better clarity, as after a long weekend party. ‘Jazz’ is a chill, a soulful experience that should relax our weary selves in this age of conflicting noise and message so that we can live and love a bit better. Hopefully, the listener will have been changed a bit.
The album is available on these links: https://bit.ly/3b1HFfL
****LET’S HEAR MORE ABOUT THE ‘HELLABY SOUND’ JOURNEY****
(An interview with AJR Carol Martin)
CM: Explain your sound. You’ve got synths and piano overlays…. And much more.
BH: All piano sounds were coming from my computer. Then I played a piano on top of the computer sounds…. I had connected both keyboards via MIDI into my computer, and assigned them to a patch, so that I could control from my laptop. I have a 500 GIG library of samples patches of sounds on my external hard drive which can give a much better sound than what my keyboards can give. For this live gig project, I wanted to set a tone standard of the sounds I wanted. It’s the smaller things that make a big difference. So I had a synthesizer, Rhodes, organ – all coming from my laptop. It was a practice in coordination!
CM: So you seem to be benefiting from the technology out there while adding your own techniques.
BH: It’s not that I’m trying to do something new, but no one is doing it in South Africa, outside of the pop music. There’s lots of this in pop music in Johannesburg, particularly among the pianists. These musicians are so good at it, they study sound design, and make a lot of money, too. Look at guitarists – they spend so much money on pedals and this and that to get the right sound – but I’m simply inventing, just adding backtracks onto the sound.
CM: It’s an interesting concept, about #Not Jazz.
HB: The Title #Not Jazz doesn’t connote a negativity, but a search for a different sound. Like Reza [Khota] is looking for a physical sound on his guitar. For me, it’s preparing backtracks that give that live feeling, along with real bass and drums. A live performance without those backtracks is empty. If you go see Beyoncé perform, it’s insane – her performance is filled with backtracks…and the fans go wild! I’m trying to get that overall experience of sound along with the visuals on the big screen.
CM: Some of your songs talk about your childhood and youth growing up with music… A picture of you in your childhood projected on the screen would have been interesting….
BH: I wanted to do this, but ran out of time. I first wanted to make sure my backtracks worked, and the band worked, and that I got the right sound….for the live performance. That took a lot of tweaking.
CM: ‘Jazz’ is a funny term. It conjures up all sorts of ideas and opinions, depending on one’s ethnic and locational background. What aspects of contemporary ‘jazz’ were you trying to avoid?
BH: Three things: First, elongated solos: Do I really want to listen to long drawn out solos after melodic band presentations in a song? A 12 minute solo? Gosh, my drive in town is only 15 minutes! My listening hours are usually when I’m driving, or late at night when everyone has retired for the night. You take someone like Bob James who, on one album, his band’s solos are usually only 16 bars, but the song might take up to 8 minutes. His arrangements are beautiful. I just didn’t want my solos to wander off into something else…like over a 12 minute period. Just too long!
The second thing I wanted to avoid was…..the way I designed the album was to leave you wanting more. Like a bait. Some songs are just introductions and short, so they can be expanded upon in a live concert. Then the third thing was what I learned from Bruno Mars’ album, 24K Magic, which blew me away. It just caught me, it was so cleverly done, and musically capturing. But there were no solos! I don’t watch his videos, but just listen. He’s so alive, his band is like a bunch of Berklee College students! They’re super talented and arrange the songs. It hit me there were no solos in his album. With jazz, we do the intros to the song, then break up into solos. I didn’t want to do that!! I didn’t want to cheat the listener from hearing the whole band, with short solos, and a unity of sound. I felt that the way we are trained as jazz musicians, we get away with reducing a song to a bunch of solos. This is cheating!
CM: So you think there’s too much solo improv……
BH: It’s not the solo per se, but I wanted to put together short snippets like Bob James does. The really good producers, the guys that dive into mixing the albums in pop music, the huge amount of effort they put into this……… So I’m respecting this craft in a completely new way. This has challenged me to arrange songs that bring out a unified band, and not rely on long solos.
CM: I notice that your songs bring out the talents of each musician.
BH: That’s why I wrote everything down that I wanted the musicians to play, so that it would allow for each musician to do short solos.
CM: In telling your story on the album, why did you order the songs as you did?
BH: It’s a story from a Thursday to a Sunday, with a group of friends starting off grooving on a Thursday with “Retro-duction”, which is an old-school R&B sound. Then I moved into “Trippy” which goes from hard core to smooth jazz. I was influenced by one of my favourite songs, “Tonight is the Night” because it has that old-school happy beat. The idea is that on the weekend, the guys have too many drinks and then start to mellow out. Then “High Road” is like moments of change during the night’s activities, then a wake up to “Shake Your Booty” which is also old-school that leads into “Funk Your Life”, again an awakening. The break comes with “2-1” and “Hodge” which gives a transition into Sunday to just chill. Hodge is the official change of mood and is a dedication to bassist Derrick Hodge.
CM: Why Hodge?
BH: I had been transcribing songs to include backtracks for a friend musician, Lwanda Godwana. I had never done anything this hard before. Then I took a look at Hodge’s Dances with Ancestors album and song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOC8ToQJyVw which used jazz improvisations that didn’t sound like jazz. There was so much overlaying – double bass, electric bass, and a sub bass, with an overlaying of drums. This was so welcome to hear. I thought, wow, this is what jazz could be. It was a confirmation of the journey I was about to embark on. So I took this technique using a guitar for ambient sounds, then bass pedals adding more ambient sound, and the drums were recorded once. The drums had about 12 effects creating chords and streams coming in and out.
So that transcription started me to do this more and more, not asking what chords were the musicians playing, but what were they doing? Trying to rebuild synthesizers. That’s what I tried to do in my own song “Hodge” with layers – it’s the longest song on the album and the most jazzy track.
CM: So back to the album story…”Searching, Found, Forgetting” is in the middle. What was that all about?
BH: That was written as part of a Suite which is a classical, gospel Suite not yet produced. This particular song came out as a pop song as I was writing. I was feeling poetic at the time. It was dedicated to people who craft, yet are not accepting who they are. We search and think we’ve found what we want. Then we keep searching, forgetting what it is that we are searching for! And this cycle of searching continues, and we still forget what we learnt. That’s why there are overlapping melodies in the song.
Then songs “1-2” and “Hodge” provide a break. That moment goes and we lead into “Come Over” which means come over to the house, like on a Sunday, and let’s party with some smooth grooves. That’s where the album ends with “Sunday Chillin’”. You know, have some jazz on in the background, and that’s the story. That’s it!
CM: So, what’s next in your projects? How are you going to market your ‘Hellaby sound’?
BH: There’s another digital album with more pop lyrics which we did simultaneously. People can buy these on Apple Music, etc. We are doing videos for marketing to create awareness, but not to make money, yet. One video is for a pop song; another video is for a jazz song. I feel the albums need to create awareness on as many platforms as possible, first, so that listeners are ready for the live gigs. This instrumental album is on line to buy, but I probably won’t print the CD until if we travel and need CDs for marketing. If we can get the videos out on mass media, TV, etc., they will create the awareness we need. https://www.facebook.com/gregory.truter.9/videos/471048573576848/
CM: Any teaching? Further studies in the future?
BH: I love teaching, and had one class at UCT last year. I prefer the University level as I can talk to my level. I want to do my Masters and eventually a doctorate so I can lecture. I don’t want to do this for the paper, but to learn more, to push myself more.
CM: What would you study? Who are your musical ‘gurus’?
BH: I want to study jazz piano, particularly George Duke, Kenny Kirkland, and Bob James. Each of them have something I want. Kirkland has that cool, smooth groove, and James is such a cool, calm piano player. I get caught up with my piano playing too much sometimes and rumble on! James plays softly, with so few notes. My favourite pianist here in South Africa has been Bheki Mseleku who’s like an African Joe Sample to me. I’ve only listened to his album, Coming Home. Then there’s Moses Molelekwa……….