Vocalist Tutu Puoane’s set with Marcus Wyatt (trumpet), Ewout Pierreux (piano), Nicolas Thys (bass), Lieven Venken (drums) and Tony Paco (percussion) yesterday was a rare and special event. A fortuitous combination of exactly the right music played by exactly the right musicians, the gig was at once rootsy and sophisticated, entertaining and spiritually uplifting.
Puoane has a voice that is touching, rich and full of subtle surprises and her improvisations were always informed by a deep compositional intelligence. Even the way she introduced her fellow musicians – literally singing their praises – was sweet, charming and achingly melodic. This praise was utterly warranted. Bassist Thys is an enviably complete musician. His two contributions as composer were witty, rhythmically infectious and filled with harmonic and melodic surprises.
Grounded and deeply assured, his bass playing provided phenomenal grooves that inspired outstanding solos from the entire band. As always, Wyatt played with grace, verve and deep soul, while Paco treated the house to a fiery solo that culminated in a breathtakingly virtuosic body percussion cadenza.
Drummer Venken generously left lots of space for his fellow musicians throughout the gig, but when he took his solo, it was more than evident that he is a force to be reckoned with. Pierreux’s piano playing is daringly original. Eschewing the usual references to big guns like Tyner and Jarrett he goes for an earthier pianism that draws deeply from gospel, mbaqanga and Latin and Caribbean musics. His solos were beautifully paced, audacious and emotionally charged.
His playing was especially remarkable given that the levels of piano in the sound mix were invariably too low, soft and unbalanced. It was frustrating seeing him execute fascinating textural and rhythmic gestures but not clearly hearing any of them. In general I have been a bit bothered by the quality of the piano sound at DSG Hall concerts I’ve heard thus far and I sincerely hope – given the outstanding calibre of the featured musicians at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival – that this problem can be addressed.