My Experience at the 2012 Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival: Day 4
My apologies for only posting this now. I imagine you’ve been waiting to hear the rest of my stories from Grahamstown. I’ve recently started work at a new place in the corporate world and I’ve little time for blogging. I really hope you enjoy the last three posts about my time at the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival (SBNYJF). Please feel free to comment and let me hear your thoughts, that would be much appreciated. Herewith Day 4!
Saturday, 30 June 2012
The festival was progressing sweetly and I was still very much on a high from the day before. ‘Chameleon’, our mixed-ability band piece; was coming on fetchingly and we were scheduled to do our first performance at around 4pm. In the interim, I decided to attend more workshops.
Workshop 1: Duncan Combe – Stomp Interactive Junk Band Workshop
One of my main prerogatives this time at the fest, was to attend more interesting and unique workshops. I usually attend a lot of bass workshops, and after all the time spent listening to similar notions about technique and practice in the years before – I decided it was time for a change.
Duncan Combe is a Clarinetist/Bassist/Percussionist/Music Educator who runs interactive team building exercises and African percussion workshops for business people. I usually attend a jam session at C’ Est La Vie in Somerset-West where he is the resident bassist. He didn’t strike me as one to make music with trash cans and other throwaway items, so this made me curious. I arrived at the class room where he and his daughter Jeane were facilitating two exercises – one involved brooms and the other involved plastic cups. I joined the group that involved cups. The aim of this game was to follow a prescribed rhythm exercise achieved by clapping your hands and beating a cup on the desk in front of you. You and your partner (standing on the opposite side of the desk) would perform the exercise while alternating two cups between you. What made the exercise difficult was that it required the player to remember and execute a series of rhythms inside a repeating 24 bar cycle, while demanding advanced hand-eye coordination. It could’ve taken about half an hour for most participants to learn the entire piece! After many hilarious failed attempts at getting it right, I finally did!
Just when I thought I was out of the woods, the exercise became more complex as the entire group of participants were made to put their desks in a circle so as to resemble a production line. If one person bombed out, the whole process bombed! Needless to say, the production line bombed out many times. I broke down in laughter on several occasions as some of the kids struggled to keep up by passing cups along in dismay, because there were too many of them landing up on their desks at once. I had a lot of fun.
Later, we all made our way outside to see how the brooms group were doing. I have to admit that the brooms exercise looked less exciting than the cups and seemed to involve a lot of dust and broken broom heads – which depending on how you look at it, is not a bad thing at all!
Workshop 2: Hein van de Geyn & Jan Galega Brönnimann – Working as a Duo
The multi-award winning Hein van de Geyn from the Netherlands is Europe’s most prolific double bass player and has performed with many leading jazz musicians worldwide. He is a master in his own right. I’d attended a previous bass workshop he presented in 2010 where he took us through the science of practicing. Seeing him play is more than inspiring because his demeanour and humility is warm and accommodating. He is also very wise and approachable.
This time he was joined by Jan Galega Brönniman, a multi-award winning clarinetist/saxophonist and electronic musician from Switzerland.
Often times when playing bass I find myself in the precarious position of having to accompany a non-chordal instrument or a singer without the addition of piano or drums. This kind of accompaniment is demanding in the sense that it requires a good sense of timing (which is often not my strongest point), groove, and knowledge of harmony. What I find Hein most good at is respect for fellow musicians in addition to his innate grasp of all of the above. This became clear as the two of them jumped into their first demonstration of the workshop: free improvisation.
This type of jam seems easier than a rigid musical form in the sense that the players can play whatever they want, whenever they want. However, this is also a risky place because no-one is exactly sure where this unprepared narrative will lead. Many times musicians experience the end narrative as both satisfying and extremely unfulfilling. Hein later likened this paradigm to “searching for something and not finding it”. That then is the dangerous part of improvisation. In a documentary I watched on pioneer saxophonist John Coltrane, many of his contemporaries likened his life to a continuous search for musical notes that did not exist, or as he would have it – were not yet discovered. Having believed that these pitches were somewhere just beyond his reach, he spent the larger part of his adult life attempting to attain them.
Hein later mentioned that during a show he did with Cool Jazz pioneer Lee Konitz, he was encouraged to ‘search and find’ inside a non-existent musical form. As if there were some sort of mystery or hidden absolute, outside of what may be perceived as an encumbering structure. Herein lays another paradigm: intuitive playing and un-intuitive playing, the latter being the free element of improvisation – the obscure, slightly more obtuse way of playing. Hein illustrated this nicely when he compared the exercise of improvisation to two types of polar personalities.
One is a studious pupil concerned with knowledge and the objective internalising of what is already there – this type of person is intuitive and does not often interact with other players. He spends his entire day stoically grinding away in an attempt to be a better musician. His world is made up of rules.
The other personality is un-intuitive and spends his waking moments hanging out in the proverbial bars and clubs, learning the language of improvisation. This personality hopes to discover untold mysteries and endeavours to grab what it is he can’t quite explain, not in words anyway.
Both personalities are extremes and both are invariably unfulfilling. As Hein suggests, the improviser needs to find mutual ground and marry these two personalities in order to reach a holistic approach to playing. I know many musicians who I can quite easily classify into both factions, but very few who achieve the common ground. “Nai my bru, ek willie pop/gospel/rock speelie – ek wil bebop speel!” and so on.
Hein and Jan then proceeded to jam over a Bjork tune, followed by the standard “All the Things You Are”, as well as “In a Sentimental Mood”. They then got some students to jam with them.
Workshop 3: Lucia Recio & Braka – Vocal Improvisation with Instruments
I’d attended Lucia Recio’s vocal improvisation workshop the day before, so I had a good idea of what to expect this time around. What inspired me to come back, was the thought of getting a chance to do some improvisation with French drummer and free jazz musician Braka, who I had played with at the festival in 2010. Back then I’d attended a workshop that involved odd time signatures and rhythms. He’d asked me to do a drum and bass demonstration with him; so we played the Dave Brubeck standard “Take Five” in the 7/4 time signature, while he attempted to throw me off by doing the craziest poly-rhythms and accents. One specific groove he pulled out was a slow disco beat which made it very difficult for me not to follow his lead. Keeping my groove was a tiny victory that day, as it’s not a common occurrence playing with world class musicians.
Arriving for the workshop, I noticed the absence of one specific individual – Braka. Apparently he had left to find some drum sticks. He never came back. Alas, Lucia rounded us all up in a circle and motioned us to repeat a similar exercise as we did the day before – the one that involved otherworldly invocations. With my feet slightly parted and my diaphragm tilted to partially accommodate the roar of my Inner Man, I let out a cry that resonated with all things past, present and future. I had reached the moment of oneness. Just then, the kid next to me started the pelvic arc dance which was seen as a sign for everyone in the room to unabashedly unleash the 1000 year nether realm. While one girl attempted to stop the madness by singing what sounded like Enya, something like that smoke monster from Lost broke out from inside her, a bit like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens part 3. Her inner child was being born, in the presence of all our one spirits. This of course, is an exaggeration on my part. What actually happened was a free vocal improvisation.
The whole point of this particular workshop was to demonstrate how vocalists interact with instruments in an environment where free improvisation is encouraged. Those who had brought their instruments were then made to improvise with the vocalists. Lucia encouraged us to join her in performing a breathing exercise on our instruments. I did this by palm-muting my bass and sliding up to emulate an inhale, and sliding down as an exhale. This was quite therapeutic. I never thought instruments had lungs? Either that or I missed the point of the exercise completely.
What was awesome about this workshop though; was doing all of these seemingly arbitrary technical devices on my bass – something I seldom get to do in the musical situations I generally find myself in. Things like pinch harmonics (where the string is pinched so as to produce a bright bell-like harmonic), slapping (where the string is slapped with the thumb and popped with the index finger), and palm-mutes (where the string is muted with the palm of the plucking hand). Only whack thing was that the boy on the drum kit wanted to play RnB grooves all day long; and so I was compelled to follow him each time. This steered the direction of the entire jam towards something that sounded like Pinkster praise and worship sessions.
It was also refreshing to not play inside a particular key! Messing around with others as it were is a really fun activity. I hope to mess around with some more people.
Nick Carter Mixed Ability Band – “Chameleon”
It was nearing 4pm and we were warming up as part of our first performance with the Nick Carter Mixed Ability Band. As I mentioned in a previous post, all non-national band students are divided into 8 mixed ability bands led by a conductor. These bands perform for a full audience twice during the week. Nick chose Herbie Hancock’s funk/fusion tune ‘Chameleon’ as a departure point for the band. Chameleon can be a manipulative little fellow as we soon discovered. Generally this piece is introduced to entry level players because of its simple two chord harmony – from this perspective, it’s not a monster at all. It is however a chameleon that tricks you into thinking you know it well, even when read from a chart. Somewhere during the performance the whole band fell apart, the rhythm section was somewhere and the horn section was somewhere else. I think it may have been the drum solo that threw the band off. Next thing we knew, there was a dead stop. As the audience looked on in a confused state, Nick quickly remedied the situation by turning to the audience and saying, “That was a mistake!” Amid a burst of unanimous laughter, he counted us back in and we ended the tune with a loud bang! Sometimes these things happen. Moments tend to take you away if you let it. I learnt this the hard way!
Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz – Afrika Mkhize
Every year Standard Bank acknowledges promising young artists from different disciplines. This year’s artist for jazz was Durban born pianist/producer Afrika Mkhize. He has worked with many notable artists including Miriam Makeba, Sibongile Khumalo, Judith Sephuma, Oliver Mtukuzi, Jimmy Dludlu, Zama Jobe, and Kabelo (of TKZee). Afrika was accompanied by Eddie Parker (Flute), Chris Engel (Sax), Shane Cooper (Double Bass) and Ayanda Sikade (Drums).
The music in this show was beautiful and Afrika’s compositions had a really distinct African sound. I was really taken aback by Chris Engel’s sax playing which reminded me of John Coltrane. Shane Cooper and Ayanda Sikade were a great rhythm duo and managed to create a gentle pillow upon which an epic musical journey was pivoted. I seldom get out to gigs as artistically refined as this one was so biggup to Afrika for a great show.
Cape Town born saxophonist and pioneer of Cape Jazz, Morris Goldberg was up next with his smooth Safro Jazz band. Morris is based in New York and has performed all over the world with notable artists like Paul Simon, Dianne Reeves, Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, and Chris McGregor. He was also educated at the Manhattan School of Music alongside Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. The band that accompanied him on the night was made up of South African born pianist Rashid Lanie (who has worked with Paul Simon, Angelique Kidjo, the Black Eyed Peas, Alicia Keys, Shakira, and Jonathan Butler) bassist Chulo Gatewood (who has worked with Miriam Makeba – playing bass on ‘Pata Pata’, Dianne Reeves, and Pat Martino) and the Late Show with David Letterman’s drummer (also a South African) Anton Fig (who has worked with Miles Davis, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Tony Bennett, Faith Hill, and Eric Clapton).
Although I found the show a little too ‘smooth’ for my liking, it did teach me to appreciate the value of South African music. Drenched in heritage and tradition, Morris’ entire set was a throw-back to the rich cultural significance of Cape Jazz – of how it emerged and continues to evolve across territories and musical palettes. The fact that now, even in America; musicians are playing this South African music is encouraging. It is very important that indigenous music is mirrored in the playing of young South African musicians and that the long legacy of the native sound in the eclectic South African musical landscape is carried forth – something I find lacking in many non-jazz circles. Even as I write this, I am inspired by the major achievement that this ensemble alone has achieved both corporately (in their own experiences) and on the night that I watched this show. Even outside of jazz, South Africa is being put on the map by many pioneering artists. This says a lot about the deeply rich sense of creativity that this country has to offer and I’m very excited to see how many amazing ‘greats’ are in the making.
On a more technical end, a further lesson that was boldly stated was that of ‘pocketing’ or ‘sitting in the groove’ – something my jazz mentor Ramon Alexander has been on my case about for some time now. Chulo Gatewood (along with his R120 000 Fodera bass guitar) made it a point of ‘pocketing’ with drummer Anton Fig. Although his bass playing was very simple (seemingly) he kept it grooving from start to finish. His style and demeanour on stage was also very comical. In what appeared to be him keeping time, was his left wrist moving side to side with each alternate beat and his head bopping all the way through. I’ll whip out this technique at some random wedding gig between sips of wine and ‘Copacabana’ in the near future.
Keep following for my post on Day 5.