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SA jazz confounds the critics

When I review South African jazz, I’m often telephoned by some white, self-appointed fellow critic who informs me that what I’m writing about ”isn’t real jazz, it’s only township”. The first New Notes concert last Friday at Johannesburg’s Mega Music blew a loud and joyful raspberry at such racism.

The concert provided one set from Zim Ngqawana’s Ingoma, one from Keith Tippett’s Mujician and one big-band set combining the two with a British and South African repertoire. Given the enormous influence refugee South African jazzpeople had on the British scene, it wasn’t surprising how seamlessly the music — from highly melodic and tightly pre-arranged to out and out spontaneous — fitted together.

And because the concert was conveived as a whole (rather than the usual token curtain-raiser from South Africans), it provided a new frame for listening to the South African compositions.

Ngqawana’s Ingoma is a moveable feast of a band. For this outing it included Dennis Mpale on trumpet, Barry Olsen on trombone, Andile Yenana on keyboards, Herbie Tsoaeli on bass, Kevin Gibson on drums and Valerie Naranjo on percussion. The tunes were the reedman’s familiar repertoire — Abaphantsi, The African Emergency Suite — but the arrangements have been considerably refined over the years. The transitions from melodic themes to free blowing and back were much smoother than on some earlier outings. These are no longer works in progress but polished compositions, long overdue for recording.

Ngqawana is supported by the quality of his sidemen; particularly, for this tour, a magic rhythm section. Young bass player Tsoaeli has emerged as a player of imagination and maturity; his development is also a tribute to the nursery for new jazz that the Bass Line club has become. Drummer Kevin Gibson was every bandleader’s dream: strong enough to provide a spine; unobtrusive enough not to dominate. And Naranjo’s dazzling percussion underlined the world music elements in the compositions without ever undermining their essential South Africanness.

Mujician’s set moved further out. Pianist Tippett, reedman Paul Dunmall, bassist Paul Rogers and drummer Tony Levin offered a muscular half hour of work-gang music: calls and responses and percussive interplay, with gentler interludes hinting nostalgically at minor-key melodies. Since it was improvised music, it’ll be different next time. The constants are the rapport between players, their musicianship, and the range of textures and colours their collaboration invokes. This was intensely involving music. Free jazz is only ”difficult” if you’re waiting for tunes to whistle, and forgetting that music is also about harmony and rhythm, teamwork and imagination.

The final collaboration set provided all these in spades, plus melodies for those who wanted them. The assertive voices were the reeds of Ngqawana and Dunmall; the lyricism came from Olsen’s ‘bone and Mpale’s trumpet, and the compositions from Tippett, Ngqawana and Feza, plus Dudu Pukwana’s lush ballad Be My Dear. And what was ”British” and what ”South African” became irrelevant: this was simply great jazz.

But while South African music more than held its own on a world-class stage, some people clearly weren’t listening. Quiet passages were punctuated by bellowing conversations from the bar. Naranjo’s chant with shaker was the cue for the video men to emit deafening crackles as they fitted a light filter. Let’s hope Durban and Cape Town have better manners.

New Notes is at the Bat Centre in Durban on May 3, and at the Baxter in Cape Town on May 4

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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