Earlier this year, South African trumpet player Marcus Wyatt told the Red Bull Music Academy about jazz:
“It’s a language. An international language, so wherever you go around the world – you meet people and you have a common language together.”
For Dr. Gordon Vernick who conducted the Standard Bank National Schools Big Band on the first Monday evening of the Standard Bank Jazz Festival, “the cornerstone of jazz and American music” remains the export from his home country, that he is most proud of – the blues. It’s the blues that casts a wide shadow over the tone of the music.
The coming to fruition of the seed germinated before The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 – the work songs of slaves, sung while tending the fields by day, and the negro spirituals which added an additional dimension of expression, inspiration and appeasement of the soul.
Way of Dancing
Presenting music that seemed to take inspiration from the elements, the Way of Dancing project featuring “two of Switzerland’s most interesting young vocalists”, Julie Fahrer and Lisette Spinnler, boasted a number of surprising sounds – including the impression of a child making a request for breakfast.
With Fahrer unable to make the trip to the festival by the Sunday night performance, Spinnler used her voice to bring every day into a performance that stretched preconceptions of jazz vocal performance. The audience at times seemed unsure about whether or not the sounds were meant as injections of humour. However, as Spinnler pushed the vocals into unexpected dimensions, they seemed to slowly open up to the experience and check their expectations at the DSG Auditorium’s door.
With the voice ranging from guttural sounds to the sounds made by children and some straight-ahead vocals making their way into the arrangements, a trio of instrumentalists provided durable and responsive scaffolding for Spinnler.
On piano, this years Standard Bank Young Artist for jazz award winner Thandi Ntuli provided elegant keystrokes that gave the ear more than a few hints at her classical training. On the drums, Peter Auret playing along the same vein as Ntuli, kept the drums crisp and clean. Between them, and behind Spinnler, bassist Shane Cooper modulated between providing complementary molten rhythms (lubricating and softening all the crispness), and flowing out of bounds, meeting Spinnler’s enthusiasm for the unpredictable.
With all this going on, the audience were provided the opportunity to join Spinnler in improvisation – anybody keen to get up on stage with Spinnler, Ntuli, Cooper and Auret? How about “the Swiss vocalist and musical magician” Andreas Schaerer. Schaerer put up his hand, made his way from the audience and onto the stage to join Spinnler and the rest of the band, in some musical play.
With the two Swiss vocalists egging each other on – they share a birthday and are from the same time but had never met until the festival, after Schaerer contacted Spinnler on Facebook – the trio behind them gave the audience something steady to latch onto.
A few highlights of this performance were the moments when Shane Cooper jumped into the pool of exploration. In one instance, Cooper was tearing up a sheet of paper from his score stand and wedging it in between the strings of his bass, giving them more tension and giving the notes more density. Another moment featured Cooper watching and listening closely to Schaerer – making sure to tailor his contributions to Schaerer’s improvisational whims. Once Cooper jumps in, Ntuli follows to make it melodic and Auret throws his drums in, as a floater with enough space for everyone.
Years ago, as a child learning to draw in school, my art teacher scolded me for erasing a line I’d drawn – the impulse to start afresh on a clean page. The scolding carried with it a lesson – work with what you’ve drawn. The test is not to produce a perfect reproduction of what the mind perceives, but to give meaningful interpretation – how we respond to what has come before, adds character and gives it meaning. As the lyric to the Julie Fahrer authored song goes:
“It’s all about the way you’re dancing,
It’s all about the way to thank it”
Adrián Iaies – The Colegiales Quartet
After hearing the language of jazz spoken with Swiss and South African inflections on the first Sunday of the Standard Bank Jazz Festival, the Adrián Iaies led Colegiales Quartet presented a South American flavour to the global conversation. Armed with arrangements which Iaies composed for this quartet and these particular players, the tailor-made experience showcased a coherent narrative, without sacrificing the energy delivered from native speakers taking liberties with the idiom. Presented as a quartet that displays Iaies’ “appreciation for certain forms of Argentinian folkloric music and Tango, but still with the jazz universe”, the performance interpreted the rhythms reminiscent of South American music and dance – modulating rhythms with the structure of European dance.
Highlights of the night included the tunes composed by Iaies, inspired by the band’s percussionist Facundo Guevara – “The Real Guevara” and “Facundo’s box”. The former, a tune that wouldn’t be out of place in a scene out of The Motorcycle Diaries, like the soundtrack to a great adventure featuring a thrilling chase sequence. The latter, a reference to the Peruvian box upon which Guevara sat while behind his drum kit. The box acts as another element of the percussive experience, his naked hands drawing out tonality from what sounded like its more hollow centre and its denser outer edge. Watching Guevara alternate between the box and the drum kit was a thrilling sight – left hand beating the box, right hand guiding a drumstick against the drum kit.
Between the real Guevara and the composer, bassist Diana Arias kept the tempo going from the middle of the stage. Joining her at the performance’s mid-section was Federico Siksnys on the bandoneon – the signature sound of the Tango, which in this performance, avoided what could easily have been a clichéd trope. These players demonstrated that while it all looks and sounds easy, it’s all down to the detailed and bespoke composition, given life by the fluidity among the players. That wonderful thing that happens when language speakers, having mastered the syntax, make it their own and take it further through a collective understanding and acceptance of the changing idiom.
The Albert Frost Trio
Returning a journey in the language of music, The Albert Frost Trio, brought us home, to the blues. In a set that started out with a three-pack of songs, the trio comprising Frost (guitar), Schalk Joubert (bass) and Jonno Sweetman (drums), took us on a journey from Tulbagh to Malawi and Johannesburg. Starting out with “Sunrise”, the band took the audience through a kaleidoscopic intro – think of the light changing at dawn, cycling through shades of red and moving into some bold yellow. Like a Spotify radio moving from the “Friday Night Lights” soundtrack by the band “Explosions in the Sky”, to some livelier guitar and drum play.
Through the setlist that featured songs about “Caroline” and “My Black Cat”, Frost demonstrated the range of tones he can eke out from the guitar. Whether it was the switch away from his Fender Stratocaster for just part of a song, or pulling out a bow to push the chords formed by his left hand to stressed tones, Frost put in the work of a clued-up tour guide taking us on a tour of the sonic museum of the guitar.
With Jonno Sweetman getting into the groove on drums, the trio structure works to showcase the elastic feedback between the players. The last time I experienced Sweetman’s drum play, he was part of The Shane Cooper Trio at last year’s Jazz Festival. In this performance the shift to a rock sound seemed to have been made, when I caught what I suspect was a move away from the off (even) beats favoured in jazz music to the down (off) beat. Switching between the beats, Sweetman submitted some sweet soloes, never giving up the spotlight to the guitar or the bass.
Transitioning between songs, Frost shared that he played in a band, Die Blues Broers, with his father for five years, until he passed away three years ago. Relating to the audience that his mother subsequently married the bass player from his father’s band, Frost’s family life certainly sounded like the narrative of a blues song. Beyond his mother’s love for the bass, Frost shared that it was the sound of a bassline in his father’s band, that made him choose the career path of musician, in the tenth grade. Hearing the sound of Schalk Joubert on bass served as the exclamation point to a statement of the significance of the bass to the blues sound. Whether he was keeping the rhythm with fast fretboard work or giving me impressions of mbaqanga rhythms, Joubert kept the performance groovy.
I think I might’ve heard the rhythm of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” in there too at one point. A fitting closing statement to a roundtrip tour of the blues begun in the first weekend of the Standard Bank Jazz Festival.
From Dr. Gordon Vernick’s description of the blues sound as “the cornerstone” of American music, the Albert Frost Trio returned the blues to Africa – the home of Ali Farka Touré, considered in some quarters to have been the father of the blues.
By Mandisa Mpulo