As appearing in the September issue of B’Jazz magazine.
For the last five years, the highlight on my yearly calendar has been an annual trip to a blistering cold town in the heart of the Eastern Cape. As both a jazz lover and a lifelong student of music, the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival (SBNYJF) in Grahamstown is nothing short of paradise.
The aim of the festival is develop the future of jazz in South Africa by exposing over 300 students at school and university level to the complex, rich and ever evolving culture of jazz. With over 40 national and international jazz educators, the festival incorporates live performances, rehearsals, workshops, lectures and networking opportunities for all of its attendees. From 9am each morning until roughly 1am the next morning, the opportunity for each student’s total immersion in the language and sound of jazz exists nowhere else in the country.
This year’s SBNYJF was no less enriching, inspiring and poignant than any of its predecessors, bringing professional jazz musicians from as far afield as Sweden, Holland, America, Switzerland, France and Norway to break the proverbial bread and rub shoulders with fledgling young South African cats – and what a glorious exchange it was.
From the very first performance by the Dutch ‘Superjazz’ group BRUUT! to the last performance of the festival by the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band (as led by trumpeter Marcus Wyatt), the scene was set for an extreme week of swingin’ heads, insatiable bebop licks and hard grooves.
What follows is a brief and by no means – comprehensive description of what hooked me.
Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz – Shane Cooper
My favourite performer of the festival was undoubtedly the 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz – Shane Cooper. For the plethora of gigs he was allotted, he brought his distinct command of the double bass to the fore in a massive way. Whether solidly underpinning the collaborative quintet he formed while on exchange at the Jazz Werkstatt in Bern, Switzerland (along with Marc Stucki Andreas Tschopp, Kyle Shepherd and Kesivan Naidoo), his own quintet as featured on his debut album Oscillations (with Bokani Dyer, Reza Khota, Justin Bellairs and Kesivan Naidoo) or with Swiss pianist and master of poly-rhythm Malcolm Braff – Cooper was the boss of bass.
I knew Cooper’s performances would be be special from the get go, having been a fan of his bass playing since the very first time I saw him play. What intrigued me more was the possibility of what his personal compositions would sound like – and how he would find a way to break the conventions of what a lot of ‘bass music’ tends to sound like.
This he did tastefully with a double bass solo at the onset of his first show which incorporated both pizzicato (fingered) and arco (bowed) style playing. The bowed portion was played on the lower end of the bass, which created the sound of children playing on a swing – this was then put through a loop pedal, which took the audience into a trance like state, just before the full band came in with the hard beats.
While embracing the acoustic limitations of the traditional jazz ensemble – ever the more astonishing, was Cooper’s use of loops and modern electronic rhythms. I was intrigued to discover that the rhythmic heartbeat or backbone of his shows were easily reminiscent of modern electronic music, the type that one would rather find in grimy industrial clubs than in intimate jazz settings. I also picked up on the cinematic quality of his ensembles, again reminiscent of a band called The Cinematic Orchestra – which I later learnt was one of his favourites.
Bad to the Bone – Steve Turre
Trombonist extraordinaire Steve Turre, is an undeniable stalwart of the trombone lexicon, having played on over 235 jazz recordings in addition to working with the Dizzy Gillespie United Nations Orchestra, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Ray Charles, Max Roach, Horace Silver, Carlos Santana, Charlie Mingus Big Band, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, JJ Johnson, the Saturday Night Live Band and countless more. Arguably one of the biggest, most renowned artists I’ve seen play at Grahamstown since I first started going to the festival, Turre’s ensemble was backed by some of the most hip jazz players in South Africa – Marcus Wyatt, Bokani Dyer, Hein van de Geyn and Kevin Gibson.
From the start, Turre bombarded the audience with the biggest trombone notes known to man! His stage presence, attire and sound were larger than life and was unlike any other badass jazz shows I’ve seen in ages. It was bad to the bone – and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Each member of the ensemble added to the heaviness of it all, with hard swinging grooves from the rhythm section and an impressive array of inter-dimensional solos from both Turre and Marcus Wyatt.
Another powerhouse of a performer was the SAMA nominated Rus Nerwich – a tall, lanky saxophonist/rapper with a huge sound that engulfed the audience at both of his performances. The first called Wondering Who, was a mystical and somewhat searching exploration of tone, groove and emotion which featured Andrew Lilley on piano, Nick Williams on bass, Kevin Gibson on drums and Ronan Skillen on percussion (and the longest and most ferocious didgeridoo you’ve ever seen, or heard for that matter). The second show Under the Poetree – which can only be described as a no holds barred party, was a roof raising acid jazz meets rap performance. It featured the versatile vocal prowess of Nash Reed (whose black jumpsuit and accompanying face paint reminded of Rhythm Nation era Janet Jackson), the rap skills of Denver Turner (who solved for the throwback to golden age hip hop) and the bombastic, rhythmic tightness of Andrew Lilley, Dave Ledbetter, Wesley Rustin and Kevin Gibson. Never before have I seen kids so quickly turn a jazz venue into a dance floor faster than what I witnessed at this gig. So, who said jazz was for old people?
From an educational perspective, the lectures were awe inspiring. Nash Reed, AJ Brown and James Bassingthwaite offered an insightful peek into the business of making a living from playing music; Evert de Munnik took us through the basics of home studio recording and sound engineering and bass virtuoso Carlo Mombelli expressed his love for using loops and effect pedals to create an intergalactic sound. This all was in addition to the countless workshops on improvisation, styles and rhythms within jazz and composition.
A whopping thank you to Standard Bank and the organisers Alan Webster and Donné Dowlman, who run such a groundbreaking festival year after year – the future of jazz in South Africa looks bright. I can’t wait for next year!