A shadowy acoustic seance

‘Who’s got the power?” asks Ravi Coltrane. ‘You’ve got the power!” echoes a voice from the darkness. ‘Do you want us to carry on playing? Yeah? Okay, power to the people!”

Coltrane’s tenor sax squeaks, shrieks, then squalls into life, inviting his Quartet to channel their collective piano, drum and bass energies into an explosive hard bop improvisation. Ear-bending originals segue into muscular extrapolations on his legendary father, John’s chord-running workout Countdown. Sheets upon sheets of sound evaporate into a hauntingly lyrical rendition of one of his mother Alice’s most meditative ballads.

‘Thank you for your patience. It’s been a great honour to come out here and play for you,” bows Coltrane, brandishing his sax in goodbye. The American tenor saxophonist had just lead his quartet through a sublime hour long improvised jazz journey, so why ask for the packed Bassline Stage audience’s understanding? Well, in an unprecedented turn of events, the Quartet spent most of their Saturday night set performing in total darkness. Unplugged. That’s right. Acoustic, without any amplification.

An on stage black out guarantees a walk out from most musicians. But not for Trane whose band of improvisational brothers barely broke a sweat segueing from the amped up recital space into the shadowy acoustic seance. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for some of the audience. Tuning into completely acoustic live jazz demands absolute silence and rigorously active listening.

With no visual performance cues to hang onto – save a roadie shining a battery operated spotlight on each soloist – many patrons were left shifting uneasily in their seats. Their muttered murmurs of approval and occasional hollered ‘yeahs’ registered a desperate desire to decode the virtuoso drum and bass solos or piano voicing. For some of the ‘serious’ jazz aficionados in ear shot such audience noise was disruptive, even disrespectful, given the austere setting.

Then again, to paraphrase Ornette Coleman, there is no single right way to listen to jazz. What matters most in music, is whether you feel it or not. And Joy of Jazz festival-goers had been feeling it from the moment funky urban pop singer Auriol Hays stepped onto the Dinaledi stage with the Gauteng Jazz Orchestra on Thursday’s opening night.

Okay, maybe not immediately. But that probably had more to do with the rows of white plastic seating that greeted punters upon entering the cavernous marquee tent. Sitting down, shutting up and listening isn’t exactly what the handful of bright young upwardly mobile 20 and 30-somethings wanted. Sure they sat quietly through her Norah Jones-y big band croons about broken hearts, a cute chamber pop gem that sounded like Coldplay covering Dave Brubeck and a sexy, Shirley Bassey styled 007 big band jam. But it was only when she brassed up her radio hit, Take it Slow that the funky pop jazz fusion party really got started.

Cue Sama-winning smoothie Brian Themba’s neo-soul serenades. ”I love you Brian!” shouts a smitten ‘True Love’ babe in the front row seconds after he finishes his opening ladies jam with a falsetto ‘la, la, la, la” scat straight out of Stevie Wonder’s songbook. ‘I love you too” he bedroom eyes back. Why bother challenging listeners when your choreographed Motown cocktail has audiences singing along to your choruses on cue? ‘Can I sit down for this one?” he teases introducing a candlelit bedside ballad croon with strings. Slick, polished shtick. And the assorted post-graduate students, ad agency copy writers and fashion store assistants eat it up.

Not everyone was feeling it though. ”It’s like getting ready to watch a Tarantino movie and being hit with The Devil Wears Prada” chirps a Joy of Jazz first timer smoking outside. ‘They’re both good, but it’s not exactly what I wanted.” Indeed. Are smooth neo-soul singalongs what the Joy of Jazz audience really want?

Apparently. It’s certainly what American R&B singer Rahsaan Patterson has in spades. Classic Motown may be his soul funk sermon, but it’s his ability to tap into the call and response traditions of jazz’s gospel roots that keeps his congregation enraptured. Serenading the ladies with his pyrotechnic falsetto scats ‘n sighs, riding a funky organ riff or covering Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, his joyous jazzy soul celebration dragged audiences up off their chairs and dancing into the aisles.

Sure, those same ‘serious’ jazz listeners might have found such uninhibited hip-shaking and hands-in-the-air-raising a threat to the solitude of the concert hall recital space, but damn if the congregational groove didn’t give credence to Duke Ellington’s maxim that jazz ‘don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”.

Another performer who refused to pigeonhole jazz was Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse. ‘It’s what we call music that we don’t know what to do with,” grinned the veteran saxophonist. Then transported the Mbira standing room only stage audience on a panoramic musical tour from smooth Sophiatown swing and contemplative Lesotho-folk ballads to funky Jive Soweto dance floor fillers and a show-stopping kwaai jazz ‘remix’ of his 80s Afro-disco classic Burn Out featuring Stoan and Speedy. For Hotstix – or ‘Hotsax’ as he jokingly prefers – the joy of jazz lies in opening up the music to all sorts of sounds and influences that might strike a chord with the audience.

Ultimately for the new generation of jazz listeners, the Jo’burg jet set that made up the majority of the audience, its less about the jazz and more about the joy: the groove. Malian siren Oumou Sangare rhythmic beat routes rooted in the ancient call and response rituals of traditional African chant had the crowd ensnared. Her South African sisters responded on cue with spontaneous ululations that added a mystical resonance to the hypnotic Afrobeaten guitar grooves laid down by her backing band.

Similarly Chris Botti had the audience completely seduced with his smooth jazz conversations. Borrowing more than just a few notes from Miles Davis’ book of cool, he wooed the hipster set with spacious modal moods and classical pop jazz tête-à-têtes.

Perhaps it was Kyle Shepherd who ultimately points to the future of jazz by presenting a sound that speaks to both jazz aficionados and party people. It’s an impressionistic landscape of homegrown rhythms, harmonies and melodies that combines the austere evocations of Abdullah Ibrahim’s Cape jazz architectures, with poetic re-imagining of Afrikaans volksliedjie Die Maan Skyn So Helder and buoyant goema groove de-and reconstructions.

So was the audience listening? Kyle doesn’t care. As he recently said in an interview with Argus Tonight scribe Zane Henry about his new album, A Portrait of Home: ‘There were no major expectations. When I release something, I just hope that someone, anyone, will want to listen to it. And even if nobody listens to it, you should look at it as a document of a certain time in one’s artistic progression.”

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Miles Keylock
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