/ 23 March 2007

A total funk-up

Unsurprisingly, this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival boasts impressive international jazz names such as legendary drummer Jack de Johnette, Byron Wallen, Jerome Harris, Jason Yarde, Jeremy Pelt and the ever-popular Joe Sample.

It isn’t all about the jazz, though. Pop singer Randy Crawford brings some commercial clout to the proceedings. Senegal’s Ishmael Lo, Algeria’s Fethi Tabet and our own Madala Kunene are among the artists supplying an African element. Sounds from further afield will be provided by the Caribbean Jazz Project as well as Cuba’s Paquito D’Rivera and Danilo Perez. Rapper HHP, with his large, live band and ska kings the Rudimentals will lend the fest some hip, urban credibility.

But what boldly stands out is the presence of a couple of the world’s best-loved funk bands: the Average White Band and Nils Landgren’s Funk Unit.

Guitarist Onnie McIntyre, a founding member of stalwart Scottish funk act The Average White Band, which has been going for nearly 35 years, feels that funk — unlike jazz, its more intellectual cousin — is a form of music that inspires dance. ”People take music too seriously. There’s a lot of pretentiousness involved, but music should be about joy, not just brow-beating. Funk comes from soul and R&B. It’s meant to be fun, it’s meant to make you move. African music has that joy inherent in it too, which isn’t surprising since jazz, funk and soul all have their roots in Africa.”

While McIntyre asserts that funk is ”more about moving your body than stroking your chin”, he adds that ”hopefully, you can find a balance. We always have fun onstage but that doesn’t mean that our music is mindless.”

Nils Landgren, a veteran Swedish trombonist who has played with everyone from Herbie Hancock to Abba, will be at the festival with his nine-strong Funk Unit. ”Jazz is a music form in constant forward motion, and we will always have this element to our music,” says Langren. ”We are all trained jazz musicians, but we love the funk groove and so that’s what lies at the heart of our music. To me, funk is a form of musical freedom. Funk’s godfather, George Clinton, put it best when he said ‘free your mind and your ass will follow’.”

Clinton’s sentiments are echoed by another Nils. Experimental Swedish act The Stoner’s clarinetist Nils Berg says: ”To move your body you have to disconnect your mind, and that’s the best way to hear music, with your body.”

The Stoner are a forward-thinking bunch of misfits with a unique, tongue-in-cheek, visual sensibility and a desire to make music that bridges the generation gap that divides jazz audiences. ”Jazz means different things for your older audiences — who grew up on traditional, acoustic jazz — and younger people, who tend to come from a clubbing background and who are more accustomed to dance-music-inspired Nu Jazz. We want to make music that excludes neither of these groups,” says Berg.

He agrees with Landgren’s assertion that jazz should always be in ”constant forward motion”. ”As musicians, with traditional jazz backgrounds, we found that it was pointless to play the same old stuff in the same way in which it has been played already. We are involved in a playful struggle to find a new musical path.”

The same can be said of one of the most interesting acts on the line-up, local improvisers Closet Snare, whose members are reluctant to label their sound. They agree it isn’t straight jazz, and the inclusion of Sibot, turntable/production wizard and member of glitch unit Real Estate Agent, helps to take their music into delightfully indefinable places. ”I would call it improvisational-live-instrumental-electronica-groove music, using normal instrumentation, live visuals, weird effects, samplers and other machines,” says multi-instrumentalist Sean Ou Tim, who provides the basslines.

”Jazz is an influence in our music but we also have other influences, such as hip-hop and electronica,” adds drummer Kesivan Naidoo, himself a seasoned jazz musician. ”I suppose, if you wanted to give what we do a name, it would be something like electro-acoustic grooving South African jazz. But I am not sure that there is a shelf like that in the CD store.”

With such a colourful mix of musicians booked for this year’s fest, it may be pointless to play at neatly categorising its acts. Closet Snare guitarist Marc Buchanan cautions against it. ”Whether it’s a beautiful orchestral string section, an uncontrolled distorted guitar, a hip-hop beat or a great improvised horn solo, it’s all just the kind of music we like. Good music.”

The Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2007 takes place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on March 30 and 31. Tickets cost R290 (day pass), R430 (weekend pass) or R25 for individual shows at the Rosies Stage. A free concert will launch the festival on March 29 at Greenmarket Square, Cape Town