Standard Bank Jazz Festival: A night of textured bass

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When bassist and Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz winner Benjamin Jephta took to the stage earlier this week, the sense of anticipation from the audience lay as thick as the amasi that I’ll be living on when I blow my budget on albums by the performers at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival.

Having presented his softer side on his opening night at DSG Hall with a band of all-stars – including Sisonke Xonti (saxophone), Marcus Wyatt (trumpet), Keenan Ahrends (guitar), Kyle Shepherd (piano) and Sphelelo Mazibuko (drums) – Jephta, saving his best for last, returned on 7 July to present a more textured sound with his “Akoustik Electrik” outfit. It featured Tuesday night’s sestet (minus Ahrends), and they were joined by Justin Bellairs (saxophone), Bokani Dyer (piano), Eden Myrrh (voice), and Jitsvinger (MC).

Jephta took a younger and more socially conscious approach in his second showing, fusing the rhymes of the Jitsvinger’s Afrikaaps vernacular and the vocals of Myrrh in his song “Identity” to provide a thoughtful piece inspired by the headlines of a country struggling to deal with its violent identity. The highlight of the performance was a beautiful homage to legendary bassist Carlo Mombelli – Jephta’s beautiful solo left me wanting to head to YouTube for another taste.

Michael Pipoquinha, Mestrinho and Alex Buck performing at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival on 7 July. Credit: Mandisa Mpulo
Michael Pipoquinha, Mestrinho and Alex Buck performing at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival on 7 July. Photo: Mandisa Mpulo

As if the this wasn’t enough, the sight of past Young Artist for Jazz award winners – Shepherd and Dyer – performing side-by-side the on piano and vocoder, respectively, is the kind of thing that makes for a great part of modern jazz history.

I caught a bit of the magic (during the song “Mombelli”) on Periscope:

Jephta’s take on identity was followed a sensational performance by 21-year-old bassist Michael Pipoquinha from Brazil. Performing at the DSG Auditorium, he was accompanied by Swiss pianist Malcolm Braff – emanating wisdom as he seemed to be watching over the next generation of musicians seated to his right – as well as Mestrinho (accordion) and Alex Buck (drums). The foursome clearly took delight in playing together; they picked up on what Braff was laying down on the piano keys and joined in on the fun with their instruments, casting a spell of joy on the stage and enchanting the audience.
Braff delighted with a solo that might’ve exceeded 10 minutes of play, seemingly telling a story of jazz’s beginnings in the speakeasies of New Orleans’ Storyville district, its departure from the gospel and finding its mischievous honky-tonk twang before picking up steam and traveling along the Mississippi to the ports of Chicago and New York. It was a solo that had me balancing my elbows on my knees and eyes closed as Braff wove his tale.
Pipoquinha told his own story on bass, giving us a taste of his identity as he played some “Brazilian soul.” His solo that had me using the word “sensational” frequently (and redundantly) for the rest of the night.
Pipoquinha’s soul can be sampled at this link on Periscope:

Concluding the show at the DSG Auditorium was a performance by the Reza Khota Quartet: it featured Khota on guitar alongside Buddy Wells (saxophone), Jonno Sweetman (drums) and Shane Cooper (bass). Bathed in light coloured in varying tones of orange and purple, Khota’s guitar-playing sustained this warm tone as he moved into a sweet spot of providing challenging jazz fusion riffs. To his left, Cooper continued to thrill me as he has done all week in different formations with his inventive bass-play. There is something almost cartoonish about Cooper when I watch him play, like a character out of the technicolour Looney Tunes age: he is percussive on bass as he turns it around to pat its backside and equally tactile in his energetic striking of the strings with his right hand, as if crashing a drum stick onto a high hat.
Then there was the moment Cooper picked up the bass, lifted it in the air and brought it back to the ground to play, as if his right hand was on fast-forward. Paired with Sweetman, the two appeared to be continuing a conversation they’ve been having since they were on stage earlier this week. Like a mutual goading between the Roadrunner and the Coyote, the audience gets to witness the latest chase in a new setting with Khota and Wells with their guitar and saxophone combo.

The warm tones of the Reza Khota Quartet:

When poured over umpokoqho (“maize porridge”), amasi makes a dish called umvubo. Anyone whose ever made umpokoqho would know that the best part is eating isikhokho (the crust) found after the softer white maize has been enjoyed. The Friday edition of the Standard Bank Jazz Festival was a rich meal as the musicians laid it on thick and left us with a textured crust to chew on. Isikhokho is the best part of the meal and provides a textural contrast to our rich and creamy meal. It also provides the origins for the slang to describe someone whose cool is set to sub-zero temperatures.
It is an apt description of each of the musicians who thrilled us on Friday night – izikhokho on bass.
Photos and review by Mandisa Mpulo
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