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.
Friday, 29 June 2012
Apart from the two venues made available for performances at the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival (SBNYJF), there are also a number of class rooms available at the Diocesan Girls School (DSG) for rehearsals and educational workshops.
Players who do not qualify for the national bands are split into one of eight different mixed-ability bands, each with its own conductor. Each band performs twice during the week in front of a live audience. This is so that younger, less experienced players have the opportunity to learn not only from their conductor but also from more experienced players.
Nick Carter’s Mixed-Ability Band
I was assigned to Nick Carter’s mixed-ability band which was made up of a huge horn section, 4 drummers, 3 bass players, 2 guitarists, and 2 keyboard players. There are more students at the festival than the DSG campus can accommodate and as such, each mixed-ability band has more than one player per instrument.
Nick is a guitarist and head of Contemporary Music at St. John’s College in Johannesburg. Upon arrival, he gave each of us a talk on the uniqueness of our fingerprints. He’d said that each of us has our own unique life journey and musicality, and should not attempt to copy the playing style of anyone else. Shorty after this he handed each of us the music to Herbie Hancock’s famous funk/fusion tune ‘Chameleon’, which I think I’ve played two or three times previously at the SBNYJF.
The rewarding thing about playing in a mixed-ability band is helping younger players grow. My first time at the SBNJYF was in 2008, and at that time I’d been playing bass for a few short months. I was playing in guitarist Mike Bester’s band and my sight reading was atrocious. I’d never been asked to solo on the bass before, and when he did; I nearly had a panic attack. Needless to say I thought my solo was shoddy, but to my surprise; quite a few of my band mates thought it was decent.
This year, there were two other young bass players in my band: Sean (who was in my band last year) and Yeukai. Nick allocated myself and a bunch of other university level players the role of overseeing the younger cats. One of the key elements of jazz music is improvisation, and learning to solo is a rite of passage. Last year I forced Sean to solo, and this year I forced Yeukai. Both were reluctant, at first.
I also had the opportunity to play with another great drummer – Reuben Crowie from UCT, whose playing really excites me. I played my first jam session with Reuben at the Lucky Store in Ida’s Valley, where he totally demolished me with his poly-rhythmic, Israel New Breed, neo-soul type chops. Later I got him to play with Rocco de Villiers and me earlier this year at the Artscape Suidoosterfees.
Workshop 1: Jason Reolon – Space in Music
One of the biggest highlights of the SBNYJF is learning first hand from professional jazz musicians. I mentioned in my Day 2 post, that the Double Standards show (which featured the Andrew Ford and Jason Reolon trios) was handled with an exceeding amount of care and tastefulness. I wanted to pick Jason’s brain a bit about how so much space was created even with the knowledge that the stage was occupied with two of each instrument.
Many of his answers came down to the following points:
- Breathing, as one would naturally – as opposed to meaninglessly playing all the time. One needs to make musical statements that have a specific impact. Something I struggled with for the longest time was telling a story while soloing. In the past I thought getting in as many notes as possible was what one did during a solo. The spaces between the notes are just as important as the notes that are played.
- Listening to other players and knowing when not to play. Mature musicians know how to play and listen at the same time. Often times I find myself playing, without listening. In order to respond to what other players are doing, I need to listen. I also need to know when to shut up.
- Space forces you to know the form. As a bass player, I often end up relying on my reading skills to busk a form. What if, during the creation of space; one player removes a pivotal part of the music – will I still be able to know where we are in the piece. Jazz is not formless, as many may assume.
Off the topic, someone raised the question about what life is like as a jazz musician in New York – the jazz capital of the world. Jason had spent some time there after he’d won the SAMRO National Overseas Scholarship Competition in 2004.
Apparently jazz musicians in New York don’t earn a living from live performance. This is due to the fact that there are so many of them, and they are all good. Some even practise 23 hours a day. At this, Jason mentioned an experience he had while attending a jam session at some jazz club. The place was packed with musicians, all waiting for the opportunity to play one item. The waiting lists with names of instrumentalists of all kinds were lining the walls. After arriving at the club at around 10pm, he’d left there having played one tune at around 3am. Heavy stuff.
Workshop 2: Lucia Recio – Vocal Improvisation
The second workshop I attended was Lucia Recio’s Vocal Improvisation. Lucia is from France, where she has been active as a singer and voice instructor. This workshop reminded me of some of the exercises we did while I was studying drama.
Standing in a circle, she made us all warm up our bodies by rubbing and shaking them repeatedly, shouting “Your body is an instrument!” in a heavy French accent. After this was done, she chose a few people to stand in the middle of the circle; and prompted them to start making other-worldly sounds. Upon receipt of these impulses from the nether realm, I cried out in a deep guttural fashion as my pelvis sporadically went into a divine trance state.
Suddenly the girl next to me proceeded to invoke the ancient sun goddess Um-Inca-Binka-Lah, while the tall skinny kid who looked like Die Antwoord’s Ninja; began ululating like those blue characters from Earth Tree. In workshops like these, one is always encouraged to be free – so I started beat-boxing.
Workshop 3: Jitsvinger – Rap
Jitsvinger is an Afrikaans rapper from the Cape Flats and I’ve been listening to him since I was 15 years old. ‘Jits’ is Afrikaaps vernacular for ‘cool/awesome’ and ‘Vinger’ is Afrikaans for ‘Finger’, which represents that he has chosen one of the five elements of hip hop (namely rap) to express himself. My brother introduced me to his music while he was still being produced by hip hop producer Grenville Williams (of the successful groups Godessa and Gazelle). This workshop was very informal and seemed more like a question/answer session until Reuben (see above) got onto the drum kit. I soon followed on bass, and so did Gabriel Montgomery (a tight pianist from UCT). This took Jitsvinger by surprise as he cautioned us, saying he wanted to save his voice for his performance with the Kyle Sheperd trio later that night. He then proceeded to freestyle rap over a heavy RnB groove that we laid down. Once again, Reuben busted it up and so did Gabriel. I just kept it basic with a neo-soul type approach to bass playing. This was definitely one of the most memorable workshops I’ve attended. A few days ago, he sent me a message saying he is humbled to have met me. To read more about the Jitsvinger performance at the DSG Hall, scroll down.
Stellenbosch University Jazz Band and “A Rhyme in Tunisia” at the DSG Auditorium
I mentioned in a previous post that I performed a rap item with the Stellenbosch University Jazz Band at the Endler Hall, as part of a set-list intended for the SBNYJF. At about 4pm, we took to the stage amid a barrage of applause after Nick Carter’s St. John’s Jazz Band had performed. Fortunately, our conductor Felicia Lesch had worked out an eclectic set that would win the crowd over in a big way. When it was time for me to step up and take to the mic, I executed it in true hip hop fashion – dancing and interacting with the packed audience. As soon as they realised that the familiar standard ‘A Night in Tunisia’ had been arranged for two rappers, they’re roared in one unanimous voice. After I’d done my part, Tielman (our pianist/in-house Afrikaans rapper) gave Jack Parow a run for his money. The performance was invigorating and everyone seemed to love it. One of the most rewarding things about this was being able to see the delight on people’s faces. After the show I managed to make a few new friends as well.
Paul Hanmer Meets Josh Prinsloo, and Digs His Sound!
A few moments after the performance, I ran into Paul Hanmer backstage. I figured I’d go up to him and thank him for the gruelling NYJB audition experience the day before. To my surprise, he seemed more thankful to me! I mean, I knew my bass playing had achieved the bare minimum – that was clear upon entry into the second round. This was a little different.
“Josh, I love your sound man! I love your sound man!” – I nearly fell over. He what? Did he just say he loves my bass playing?
After staring at him in a bewildered state for about half a second, he asked me who I play with and where. I told him I usually play with Ramon Alexander in Stellenbosch.
“Ramon Alexander! Ja, I know Ramon. He’s lucky to be playing with you! Do you ever come to Joburg?”
Paul Hanmer, asking ME if I ever come to Joburg – picture that!
After that I told him I’ve been listening to his ‘Trains to Taung’ album. “Really, you have?” he asked me. He then went to on to explain in great depth how he sourced the musicians for that record, and how the iconic jews harp on the opening track ‘Meeting of the Women’ was sporadically brought to the studio and included on the first day of tracking by drummer Jethro Shasha. The conversation could’ve gone on for ages, but the Stellenbosch cats had all planned to go to Spur to celebrate our successful performance. It was good to know that hard work pays off. I only have Ramon to thank for that!
Jitsvinger with the Kyle Sheperd Trio and Erik Johannesen
A few hours later, we all made our way to the DSG Hall for the Jitsvinger performance. The closest thing I could imagine to what we were about to experience was last year’s knee busting performance by British rapper/saxophonist Soweto Kinch; who absolutely knocked my socks off. Jitsvinger was accompanied by young piano visionary Kyle Sheperd (who had previously worked with Jitsvinger on the ‘Afrikaaps’ theatre piece), bassist/electronic music producer Shane Cooper (whose double bass playing is always a treat), drummer Jonno Sweetman (who had the previous night played with Double Standards) and trombonist Erik Johannesen from Norway.
I thought the show told a very pronounced and skilfully articulated portrayal of the history of South Africa’s indigenous people. The balance between deep jazz and the raw sound of Africa was neatly maintained as Kyle alternated between piano and the Khoisan mouth bow, while Jitvinger depicted the hardships of those who lived under colonial rule years ago. The aesthetic of the show reminded me of 1970s Gil Scott-Heron and Jitsvinger’s tall frame exuded a bold presence. His lyrics were even more brave and to the point. What I dig about Jitsvinger the most, is that his lyrics contain depth. He’s not afraid to raise taboo subjects. Many rappers just rhyme about nonsense: bitches, money, sex, drugs etc. Put a conscious artist together with a master band, and you really have a spectacle. I really hope they do an album.
Keep following for my post on day 4.