Day 2: Thursday, 28 June 2012
Some people wonder why I go to Grahamstown every year for the jazz fest, others think I’m just taking a holiday there, others think playing music is foolishness. I’ve decided to blog about my experiences there.
National Youth Jazz Band (NYJB) Auditions
[“Eish, My alarm! Huh? Oh, it’s 5:30am.”
[“Josh, get up. You gotta go through your audition piece sucker!”]
My conscience got the better of me as I shot to my feet, picked up my bass, and started warming up on my solo prepared piece: the standard ‘Beautiful Love’. You see, the auditions were happening at 8am and in order to be ready; I had to at least do an hour of warming up before hand. The Grahamstown winter is not the most forgiving and its icy breeze is killer for the fingers of the young jazz musician trying to do his best in an unforgiving audition situation.
The First Round
The first round audition is a little like Idols, without judges who pretend to know something about music. This time, there were 6 highly knowledgeable and experienced jazz musicians sitting on a panel scrutinising every note played whilst listening to the same tunes over and over in search of this year’s top players. On the panel was Paul Hanmer (multi-award winning pianist/composer and conductor of this year’s NJYB), Alan Webster (Festival Organiser), Brian Thusi (Trumpeter and Professor of Music), Shaun Johannes (Top SA Bassist, lecturer in Jazz Bass at the University of Cape Town, and one of my old bass teachers), Nishlyn Ramanna (Piano professor at Rhodes University), and German saxophonist Mro Fox.
I think I was part of the 4th rhythm section group to go in to the audition room. The tension was heavy and my fellow group members were nervous as hell. The panel looked mean and unrelenting and this intensified the moment. I wondered how I was going to survive. I recalled a workshop that master bassist Carlo Mombelli presented in my first year at the NYJF, where he spoke about this notion of ‘Artificial Loudness’. This concept was something he utilised to block out the noise of one’s surroundings during performance, to focus only on what needed to be done. I attempted not to zen out on such esoteric notions as I summoned the courage to whip up a bass audition that took no prisoners. Somewhere between ‘The Sound of Music’ and Goku’s Kamehameha finishing attack, I found the serenity to move on. Within moments, it was over. I survived. My audition went well, surprisingly so.
The Second Round
At about 2pm those who qualified for the second round were announced. 5 students from Stellenbosch University made it through including myself. This was my second time in the second round at the SBNYJF. The previous time I went head to head with female bassist Romy Brauteseth who is now an in-demand bassist in Cape Town. She eliminated me. This time I was up against bass prodigy/previous NYJB bassist Benjamin Jephta and two other formidable guys as well.
The second round audition was intensified by the addition of a live audience comprised of fellow students and lecturers from around the country – all equipped with an acute ear for jazz.
All of the participants were then required to jam over two allocated standards as well as over a 12/8 African ballad written by Paul Hanmer. The hardest part of the audition was keeping a clear head while still trying to put my best foot forward. While Paul Hanmer and Shaun Johannes directed the flow of players on and off the stage, most of the questionable players fell by the way side. The role of bassist came down to Benjamin and I.
Apparently this year’s audition process had the highest standard they’ve ever had, and this made choosing the band extremely difficult. At about 6pm, the names had not yet been finalised. The entire audition took the better part of the first day.
Benjamin made the band. None of the Stellenbosch players got in.
It was only until the next day, that I realised how close I’d come (more on that in my post on Day 3). As my jazz mentor Ramon Alexander assured me, being a musician is not about the awards and achievements – what’s most important is putting bread on the table. These words are bitter sweet.
After an increasingly exhausting day at auditions, we made our way to the DSG Hall where the first show of the festival took place: Double Standards – The Andrew Ford & Jason Reolon Trios. This was like the MTV artist mashups for jazz, and comprised the Andrew Ford Trio (Andrew Ford – Piano, Charles Lazar – Bass, Heinrich Goosen – Drums) and the Jason Reolon Trio (Jason Reolon – Piano, Wesley Rustin – Bass, Jonno Sweetman – Drums).
What I expected to be an earth shattering wall of sound characterised by two bands beating the hell out of their respective instruments, turned out to be a beautiful journey through some of the most familiar jazz standards. What I really enjoyed about this show was the immense amount of sheer artistry that went into tastefully allowing the music to breathe – something I surmise only comes with years of experience. It can be very easy to drown out another’s playing even inside a normal ensemble, how much more in a double ensemble with two ferocious drummers.
This was the second time I’ve seen Wesley Rustin on double bass. The first time was at Ramon’s launch of his debut album ‘Picnic at Kontiki’ at the Endler Hall, where his quartet (myself included) shared the bill with the Reza Khota Quartet. Once again, Wesley ripped the bass up (in a very gentle way). I also digged Jason Reolon’s soulful piano playing, which I found melodic and sonorous.
After the Double Standards show was over at about 7.30pm, I was so exhausted I ended up chatting to Inge (one of the Stellenbosch lecturers) in the dining hall ’til about 9.30. I think I needed to detox abit after the strenuous day. Just then, Shaun Johannes (or ‘Shaun Jozi’ as I like to call him) came up to me and told me he was really impressed and proud of my audition. Aside, Shaun Jozi is not the easiest man to impress, and is quick to speak his mind; especially when something sounds whack.
Carine Bonnefoy Quartet
At 10pm, multi-award winning French pianist/composer/arranger Carine Bonnefoy, was performing with her quartet (Stéphane Chausse – Clarinet/Flute/Sax, Jean-Michel Charbonnel – Bass, André Charlier – Drums) at the DSG Hall. Last year at the fest, I watched a bunch of shows that featured Carine and attended a composition workshop she presented.
Apart from her beautiful piano and multi-textural compositions, there is something really mysterious about her. I have to admit, she is quite a looker. This was the first of her two performances at the fest, the latter being one of my favourites. I’ll save the details for a later post.
Keep following for my post on Day 3.