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Saul sings a rare treat for jazz lovers

Gwen Ansell

The Guardian in London called her "the Queen of African Jazz" and composer Pinise Saul more than merits the title.

The Guardian in London called her “the Queen of African Jazz” and if you were at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival five years ago you would have heard why singer and composer Pinise Saul more than merits the title.

If you weren’t, Sunday evening at the Lucky Bean in Melville provides a once-only chance to catch up.

Born in the 1940s, Saul was singing almost as soon as she could talk. In Johannesburg in the late 1960s, the young woman’s voice and musical intelligence rapidly gained the respect of jazz peers, such as pianist Shakes Mgudlwa and trumpeter Dennis Mpale.

Saul is immortalised in Mpale’s composition Pinise’s Dance from the Soul Giants’ 1968 album I Remember Nick.

Odyssey of exile
It was a trip overseas in 1975 as part of the cast of Ipi Ntombi that provided Saul with the chance to escape apartheid restrictions. She started her odyssey of exile in Boston, where she performed with artists as diverse as Bob Marley and Patti Labelle before joining the well-established London South African jazz scene some years later.

There, like many of her peers, she worked across the scene: as teacher, organiser and composer, in South African and African music combos, in gospel, in pop-music session work as well as in avant-garde European improvising ensembles.

Some of her most powerful singing happened with pianist Chris McGregor and particularly with saxophonist and composer Dudu Pukwana in the bands Spear and Zila. Though she has a conventionally rich, warm voice, she has always reached beyond that to the voice’s potential as an improvising instrument.

Saul knows precisely when to belt out a chorus dead on the melody and when to bend and pull the notes to make them her own. Listen to her version of Hamba on the 1989 Pukwana masterpiece Cosmics Chapter 90 and you’ll hear a song surgically detached from the memory of Victor ­Ndlazilwane and ­reconceived.

Mercurial imagination

Although her inspired musical partnership with the late Pukwana is extensively documented on record, much of Saul’s work in London sees her paired not with a reedman but with a ­guitarist: Madumetja Lucky Ranku. She has worked with Ranku in Township Express, the Township Comets and the African Jazz All Stars, among ­others, and with him she co-founded the London-based South African ­Gospel ­Singers in 1989.

What worked so well about that team, as we heard in Cape Town, was Ranku’s ability to shift suddenly and subversively from roots malombo jive to blues and the avant-garde, mirroring Saul’s own mercurial imagination.

In Bheki Khoza, Saul’s musical partner on Sunday, she’ll find very similar qualities. The KwaZulu-Natal-born left-hand guitarist learned his first music at his traditionalist grandmother’s knee. He credits her musical ear with teaching him to recognise the chords that worked. Now Khoza has a bachelor of music degree from the ­University of Hartford and an impressive record as arranger, music director and producer, as well as a player with both maskandi and jazz voices. But in Jo’burg’s shrinking live scene he is heard on stage too rarely and his ­presence, as much as Saul’s, makes this show essential listening.

The rhythm section comprises Adam Glasser—who has played with Saul in many of those London ensembles—on keyboards, Lucas Sen-yatso on bass and Bernice Boikanyo on drums. The playlist will feature Saul’s and Glasser’s own songs plus ­material from Dudu Pukwana, whose fine ­songbook seems to be finding ­rediscovery in South Africa at last.

The Lucky Bean is at 16 Seventh Street in Melville. Doors open at 6pm and the music will begin around 8.30pm. Since seating is limited, booking is recommended. Book at 011 482 5572 or [email protected]

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