Going Dutch At The Jazz Piano Series

Right now, improvisations what defines jazz, says Jeroen van Vliet, who kicks off Arts Alives Jazz Piano Series tonight. He spoke to Gwen Ansell

SO here I am, drinking herbal tea and listening to two jazz pianists at once. The one talking is Dutch visitor Jeroen van Vliet. The one playing — on the tape deck — is South African Shakes Mgudlwa with the Soul Giants. Van Vliet is trying to come to terms with the kind of music scene where a player of this calibre could live, work and die hidden from international jazz history.

This man is great … strong compositions and an incredibly well thought-out concept of where the improvisations are going … Its odd, but in the Netherlands we probably know more about the politics of South Africa than about the music or the spirit of the people. I love the playing of Abdullah Ibrahim, but without knowing much about the background which made that music.

On stage, Van Vliet is a much more restless presence. Last Friday in Pretoria, poised over the keyboards like some kind of stick insect, his contributions to the music of the Paul van Kemenade Quintet took a wry, post-modernist look at jazz piano conventions. On Hot Cocoa he added the flavour of hard bop; on Call a spare, almost Schoenberg-like intro; on Sweet Emma sounding as though somebody had shot holes in a Dr John solo, removing the barrelhouse baroque.

This week in Johannesburg, Van Vliet is in the driving seat, conducting workshops through the week and performing as the first guest in the Arts Alive Jazz Piano Series tonight and tomorrow.

Playing the piano feels natural to me. When I started music, the piano was what I wanted — even though my mom hoped Id play something else like the flute. Van Vliet started lessons at 10. He has won several prizes as composer and soloist, including first prize with his quintet, Iris, at the NOS Jazz Concourse in Amsterdam in 1988. He teaches, gigs, and for the past year has been resident composer for the dance company RAZ.

The piano can be so many things: melodic, percussive — sometimes it can be a bitch too. In Europe, history has tended to see the piano virtuoso as taming his instrument — but in fact the instrument shapes you. To let a piano sing as it can, you have to listen to what that instrument can do; thats the main content of the musical language youre talking.

And although when I was a kid I occasionally dreamed of being a concert pianist — white tie and tails, the whole number — I was already too much into improvisation for that.

Van Vliet doesnt agree with the neo-classicists of jazz, grouped around Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch and the Lincoln Centre, who see swing as the essence of the music. No. The history of jazz started somewhere else, in blues and ragtime for which specific contents, a specific musical grammar were more important than the improvisation. But for 1994, improvisation is what defines jazz. Thats what makes me a jazz musician, just as my European classical training maybe makes me something else.

Van Vliet is working with students at Fuba and at the PWV Music Academy in Daveyton. He views the disputes which earlier threatened the series as normal. Everywhere, including the Netherlands, musicians unions set the conditions for visiting artists. But when we planned to come, we already knew — and were glad — that we had to do more than just play concerts.

His concerts will involve saxophonist Zim Ngqawana and trumpeter Feya Faku. I know Zims playing now. I love it. It has that real African feel but also his own strong sound. I hope in the workshops — as we did last week at Pretoria Technikon — we can share knowledge about dealing with the instrument. In Pretoria, I learned that our kind of music with its strong emphasis on a personal, improvising voice is very new to South Africa.

As for what Van Vliet wants as a souvenir from South Africa: I want to really get to know the experience of South African musicians and a better understanding not only of the music but of the lives of ordinary people here. When he leaves, hes clutching a list of South African jazz pianists. Hell get to the record store as soon as he has some free time from teaching.

* Following last weeks union protests, the series now includes opening sets by South African jazz pianists. Concerts start at 8pm at the Newtown Galleries tonight and tomorrow night (September 9 and 10), with R20 tickets obtainable from Computicket or at the door.

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