Toys, exhaust pipes and all that jazz

A Carlo Mombelli gig can make you wonder if you’ve come to the right place: artists blow into children’s toys to set up a carefully composed groove; Mombelli himself plays an improvised instrument made from a scrap-metal exhaust pipe modified with a spring.

Ever since his entry into the jazz scene, Mombelli has pushed the boundaries of the art form with his own brand of sound design and jazz composition. In doing so he has earned the reputation of making “strange” music, a description that Mombelli says has made it hard for him to get large festival gigs and record contracts.

But he is not using these unusual sonic elements simply for the sake of being different. “I am influenced by everyday sounds and I have discovered that the world is tonal as well as atonal. So, for me, that stuff is absolutely normal. I’m not using these things to try to be different. I’m not trying to be a new musician. I want to take the audience into stories, to take them to a dream,” he says.

And this he does. People in the audience close their eyes and go on a journey. Mombelli achieves the rare feat of bypassing the visual aspect of highly technical music to get to its root: the audience’s experience.

Which is not to say that the musicianship in his gigs has not been breathtaking. The Mombelli Meets Mears (Again) collaboration has some of the most incendiary piano and trombone solos I have ever heard, courtesy of Mark Fransman and Adrian Mears respectively.

Mombelli rarely takes centre stage himself, preferring to let others grab the spotlight. “There mustn’t be any ego involved when you get on stage. What we are doing is debating a conversation. I start the conversation and the rest of the band picks it up,” he explains.

The band’s incredible tightness and musical understanding can be attributed to extended jams in Mombelli’s house in Johannesburg, where he has a drum kit and various other pieces of “musical equipment” — think tuned sewage pipes.

Looking at Mombelli’s career, his integrity and dedication to his music seems unquestionable. He and his wife sold all their belongings to raise money for a plane ticket to Europe in order to present one of his demo tapes to the head of the famous ECM label.

“My wife has worked in a factory while I practised bass for 14 hours a day,” he says of the time before his big breakthrough. When his career looked set to explode in Europe after 11 tough years, Mombelli made the decision to move back to South Africa because he says he wanted his children to grow up here.

Mombelli got into the bass aged 16, when he first heard legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius. But the spark that set off his musical career was seeing Romeo and Juliet when he was eight. “That was when I was baptised into music,” he says.

He polished his jazz chops playing with South African jazz guitarist Johnny Fourie, who died last year and whose recorded voice Mombelli uses as a loop in one of his songs. “He’s like my guru, that guy,” says Mombelli.

“South Africa’s premier avant-garde jazz bassist” is a moniker one reads many times with reference to Mombelli. But from attending his gigs at this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, the title is rightfully earned.

It seems a pity that great musicians with the integrity and creative vision of Mombelli cannot find a broader market for their music. In a just musical world, Mombelli would be topping the charts.

This article was first published in Cue, the National Arts Festival newspaper

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