Thandi Ntuli: Freefalling


June 29. 5pm. Full house at DSG. Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz. Thandi Ntuli. An air of anticipation? Sure.

Soulful jazz serenades on “love, fellowship and postcolonial reckoning” champions the official festival booklet blurb. Hell, who wouldn’t pay the R95 price of admission to hear her reimagine tracks off critically-acclaimed albums The Offering and Exiled? Especially when her backing band boasts 2016 poster boy Benjamin Jephta (bass) and the SAMA-winning vet Marcus Wyatt (trumpet). Hell, hip young things Keenan Ahrends (guitar), Linda Sikhakane (sax), Mthunzi Mvubu (sax) and Justin Sasman (trombone) are all prepped to read their charts on stage too. Sphelelo Mazibuko (drums) and Tlale Makhene (percussion) complete the potential ear candy.

FADE UP. There it is. That extended blue note. His signature. Marcus Wyatt’s muted trumpet trails Nthuli’s atmospheric keyboard drift. It’s a sweet, if sugary enough coda to Ntuli’s first original composition…. “Spyro Gyra!” pipes up a beret-sporting baritone jazz buff near the back. It’s a fanciful, but fair chirp.  The Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz may only be 90 seconds into her “#ART_IS My Jazz” gala concert, but the tone is set for more than an hour of underwhelmingly generic fusion that left more than one audience member frustrated.

Music critic Kodwo Eshun called it in his seminal interrogation into the narrative of sonic fictions, More Brilliant than the Sun way back in 1999. “Let us not ask what it means. Let us ask what it does to the body.”

In Ntuli’s case… Not much. Too harsh?

Clock the choreographed applause Jephta gets when he starts to stroke his electric bass with that archetypal jazzman eyeballing ecstasy. Attest to the raptures when Mazibuko rocks his drums solo. Witness Wyatt’s unmistakable glaze as he tosses off yet another blue note from the chart stand. Then testify to the audience’s muffled applause at Ntuli’s oh-so light touch and amiably airy quiet storm scatting. Nope. Tonight she isn’t killing anyone softly.

FADE OUT. What a pity. What a crying shame. “Stage fright”? “Opening night jitters”? “Crap sound”? Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps. Let’s wait and see how her remix of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool with DJ Kenzhero pans out with the party people on Saturday night.

By Miles Keylock, an independent journalist who has been writing on arts and culture for the past 30 years.