No Turning Back: Kyle Shepherd's Invisible Jukebox

“This is music from home. Why wouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t it be?” declares Kyle Shepherd on his Sama-nominated debut quartet album, fineART.

On his brand new trio album, A Portrait of Home the 23-year old pianist and composer continues to paint an impressionistic landscape of exploratory South African jazz rhythms, harmonies and melodies.

Cape Town’s Kyle Shepherd is widely regarded as one of South Africa’s most accomplished jazz pianists, composers and band leaders. He showed off his talents at this year’s Joy of Jazz Festival.

What better way to to find out where Kyle’s proudly South African approach to improvised music comes from than by playing him some homegrown jazz classics - and a pair of Afro-American jazz satellites, for good measure.

Jazz Epistles— Gafsa (off Jazz EpistleVerse.
, 1960)

(Six seconds into the piano solo) Okay. I know this one (chuckles). It’s called Gafsa by Abdullah Ibrahim. I stand to be corrected but I think it may be from his first or second album. (Listens further). Okay. My immediate feeling is it’s either on a trio album, or I’m leaning towards it may be from his solo piano album called Gafsa. But from the sound of the piano I can hear it’s even an older recording. This must be from ‘67 maybe? If it is, then Makhaya Ntshoko is on the drums - which we’re not hearing - and the bassist would be Johnny Gertse. So it’s either Duke Ellington presents Dollar Brand or….

You’re spot on with the drummer and bassist, but this recording’s actually even earlier….

(Immediately): Oh! Is it The Epistles? Of course, that album also features Kippie Moeketsi (sax), Jonas Gwangwa (trombone) and Hugh Masekela (trumpet).

Abdullah Ibrahim’s music has been a pivotal influence on you hasn’t it?

I’ve always been attracted to his solo piano work particularly. I’ve always found it quite amazing and fascinating how he executes things in these long kind of threaded, non-stop, flowing recitals of solo piano. There’s so many different shades to Abdullah and not many people know all of [them]. I think a lot of people only know the music that was composed in the context of the struggle, that people adapted as anthems, things like Mannenberg, South African Sunshine, Soweto is Where It’s At. But I think the depth of him as an artist really comes out in his other works. So I’ve always been attracted to his vast, vast range of very deep, serious artistry, you know? With Abdullah what always strikes me is just how many different elements are in his work. And also how predominant the elements of ‘home’, for lack of a better way of saying it, are in there. And how he’s internationalised those sounds within songs and within the execution and delivery of concert performances.

Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath—The Serpent’s Kindly Eye (off Live at Willisau, Ogun, 1994)

(Immediately) This must be Chris McGregor, The Brotherhood of Breath. (listens) Dudu Pukwana…hell yeah!

You currently compose for trio and quartet, what are your thoughts on writing for a big band?
I think any composer has ideas about doing that kind of thing. I’d love to write for orchestra and improvising musicians in combination, and also a big band much like that. Chris McGregor, The Brotherhood of Breath, The Blue Notes, I mean…phew…in terms of writing and arranging for big band, they were really just, just, there’s so much I could say, but they were really just something else! They really shook the UK scene when they got there and influenced so many musicians.

How much influence they had on the Europe and UK jazz scene is not even known back home. And how much musicians loved and revered them. That band was just made up of such unique, incredible musicians, world class and beyond. Ornette Coleman loved Dudu Pukwana’s alto sax playing. Don Cherry loved Mongezi Feza’s trumpet playing. Charles Mingus loved Johnny Dyan’s bass playing as well. And of course there’s [drummer] Louis [Moholo] as well.

Yeah, word has it that Louis can’t get a gig at home….

No he can’t! He has to travel to Europe all the time. I’ve been fortunate enough to play with him on two occasions in Cape Town. It was incredible to work in that context. You know, I wish I could have done that now ‘cos we just grow all the time. For me I was a bit musically young at that time. But everything I learned being in that process stuck with me. I would really love to play with Louis now. In fact I should tell him that, soon. I have to say I wish I and more young musicians in Cape Town had more contact with their music, their recorded work and more information about Chris McGregor and The Blue Notes. Because at the moment we don’t. Not a lot of people know about this work. That’s a great pity actually. I’d love to hear more of it.

Isn’t this music being studied at university or music college?

No. Maybe that’s another point to touch on. It’s strange. South African music at the University of Cape Town is a half a semester course out of a four year degree. Not half a semester every year, just half a semester. And it’s taught by an American musician, whom I have to say, really doesn’t know much about the South African music scene. On an emotional level that fully confirmed why I had to leave that particular university. Chris McGregor and The Blue Notes and all the guys we just spoke about are four year studies each! Then you talk about Robbie Jansen, that’s another. Hilton Schilder and Mac McKenzie, you talk about Abdullah, or Bheki [Mseleku], these are all large scale studies, you know? People could write thesis papers on this artistry you know?

Your new trio album is entitled, Portrait of Home. To riff off Bra Hugh’s classic album, clearly ‘home is where the music’ is for you?

I have to say for me it was kind of the most natural thing. I was never thinking, okay, what’s going to kind of get me noticed, okay, put up this banner for music from home. I’ve always loved it, from just being a listener. I always knew that there’s something in this music, maybe I never knew what it was or is, but I always knew there was something when I heard those things Abdullah played, or I first heard Robbie, I always knew there was something in there that I relate to.

Robbie Jansen—Khoisan Symphony (off The Cape Doctor, Mountain Records, 2001)

(Immediately): Ah, I know this. This is Khoisan Symphony, written by Hilton Schilder, played by Robbie Jansen. The Cape Doctor is really a great album. I used to listen to that album a lot. If anyone wants to hear an album that really defines Robbie’s alto and flute playing - there’s a bit of him singing as well - that’s the album to check out. There’s great writing as well, Hilton Schilder and Steven Erasmus contributes most of the compositions. I’d really try and tune anyone onto that album if they want to know the sound of the Cape Town alto playing template, I think that’s definitely the one.

You have a composition called Die Goema on your new album and are one of the few composers to champion the sound of Cape Town. Why do you think so-called Cape jazz gets so little airtime?

I think it starts with the cycle of young musicians that come through. I don’t think there’s enough practitioners of this music actually. Or enough people that actually take it serious[ly] enough to think about it, you know? There’s this, this, this…really sort of bad stereotype about the music from here amongst jazz musicians. This thinking that playing Goema or African music and playing jazz in that context is really sub-standard to playing American kind of jazz. Or now there’s this new craze about the European jazz sound, some people call it the ECM sound. It’s really not the ECM sound, it’s the European kind of thing.

And because there’s this thinking among young jazz musicians, I don’t think there’s enough of us who have taken people like Robbie seriously. Or people like Zim seriously. Or people like Abdullah. Or Bheki or Dudu Pukwana…all of these great pioneers, I don’t think they’re studied enough at home. They are studied elsewhere in the world, but not enough at home, you know? So I think it starts with the makers of the music, perhaps if there were more makers of the music, it would be more in the middle of everyone’s consciousness.

Andile Yenana—South Central (off Who’s Got the Map? Sheer Sound, 2006)

That’s beautiful, who is that? Really? Oh right, I’m not that familiar with the album. It’s funny I initially thought it was somebody international, but there was something I could hear that was South African. I kept thinking it sounds a bit like Hilton [Schilder] when he improvises a solo. Funny. I can hear, there’s so much modern classical, and I know Andile draws from that a lot. Other than that it’s beautiful piano playing, I like that style a lot, it draws a lot from the impressionists, the kind of harmonies and the movement of that. It’s great. I didn’t know it was Andile, I’ll go back to that.

Zim Ngqawana “Biological Warfare” (off Anthology Of Zimology - Volume One European Tour: Heidelberg, 2010)

(chuckles) I think this version is off his newest album, Live in Heidelberg, eh? Shane Cooper is actually on bass and Duduzu Makhatini on drums, all my friends and colleagues. That’s cool to play that. Recently, just before my quartet’s tour to Denmark, I went to Toulouse in France with Zim. I remember I played an improvisation on this particular tune - in the rehearsal actually - and Zim came up to me with what looked like a very kind of reflective face and he just said, you know, in that tune, for the first time in a long time he really heard beauty. And it meant a lot to me because we all know that he’s been through quite a series of emotional misfortunes with the vandalism [of his Zimology institute]. So that tune is just something special for myself having played that with him on that occasion, even though it was in rehearsal. It’s a beautiful work, a beautiful composition.

What is it about Zim’s work that strikes such a chord with you?

It’s funny, what I love about Zim is that he’s such an ‘out there’ artist that’s always progressing, always moving forward and always pushing things in his playing, you know? He improvises - especially in a song like that - very much in the Harmolodic style of Ornette Coleman. And yet a musician like that can still find so much widespread appeal. Songs like Ebhofolo and Qula Kwedini were big hits, very big hits actually. I’ve been on the streets with him in Jo’burg and people come up to him and start singing Qula to him. (chuckles) Strange things like that you don’t expect walking around with a jazz musician. It’s crazy you know! When Zim played at the Cape Town International Jazz Fest two years ago, I remember when he started this tune, people went quite crazy to this so-called ‘heavy’ jazz thing, you know that [some] people have already decided that the people will never like? And of course, the jubilance in the audience at that particular gig at the festival just increased as the ‘hits’ started rolling out.

Do you think that Zim’s music calls into question Western culture’s obsession with maintaining the divide between so-called “high art’ and “low art”?

Ja, if you dig it, you dig it. If you’re rocking out , you’re rocking out to whatever it is, you know? It’s funny you should mention the West. Classical music by its very nature decided a lot of things. It goes straight to its name: it’s a very classist thing. It’s funny in the 60s the Charles Lloyd Quartet with Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette, they reached rock star status. They were playing at all these sort of ‘peace and love’ rock festivals (chuckles). And all these hippie rockers had no idea they were rocking out to jazz, but they were. Lloyd was frequenting these big rock festivals that a jazz musician would never be booked into. Miles Davis as well. So that was the mood of the time.

The mood in 2010 is pretty different. Brand consciousness seems to be the name of the game? How do you market a jazz musician these days?

Playing the kind of music that I have committed to - and I say “committed” and I really mean “committed” - means there are certain, I suppose, certain sacrifices that you have to make - initially. I’m hoping that it could change in terms of my life, that things could become a little more stable, a little more comfortable, I mean you don’t want to live in a difficult situation for too long. But I think that when you make that first decision to commit to what you’re doing, there are of course the worldly difficulties and you have to turn your back to a lot of the comfortable things. And it’s funny, when you start becoming comfortable living without the comfortable things you realise how much you didn’t need some of those things. And then you just start focusing in on the work. And then you get to a point - like what I’m feeling now - that there’s really no turning back.

Three years ago I was heavily operating on the Cape Town gig scene, working for five, six, sometimes seven nights a week in a restaurant, in a…phew…pub, and even before that when I just started we were playing in clubs, heavy clubs, you know? (chuckles) Playing dance music and stuff. I came right through that and then when we went into the studio I think I may have still been doing a few gigs in the restaurants. There’s also obviously the economic comforts of that, and it’s perhaps why a lot of people don’t ever get out of that.

But then when we recorded the [debut] album I realised that perhaps the only way to reach the things that I was aspiring to was to fully commit to the work, to creative music, whether it be mine or another composer’s work. Working with people like Zim and on projects like Afrikaaps is the only kind of thing I’d want to be doing for the next twenty years. Let’s hope that life doesn’t force any of us back [into the supper clubs]. But who knows? Really, I’m onto what I’m doing now, I feel like we’re onto something. So the least we can do is commit to it.

Moses Molelekwa—Genes and Spirits (off Genes and Spirits, Sheer Sound, 1998)

(immediately) Yeah, it’s Moses. That’s Fana Zulu on bass. Moses was another one who also received that widespread following. On Genes and Spirits he was hitting the audiences that were listening to house music and contemporary stuff, and he also had the following of the jazz audience. What I really like about him is that I think he also comes from Abdullah, definitely. I don’t think enough people acknowledge that about what he did.

A lot of people thought that it was kind of his and his thing alone. What I hear in his playing just comes so directly from Abdullah as well, and again from the albums and works that people don’t know, you know? Which is no sort of discredit to Moses’ artistry and the strength of his artistry as well. What I loved about him was the way he could make the piano sound like different traditional instruments, mostly mbira. I’ve heard him speak about that, how he was always trying to make the piano sound like the mbira in the things he was playing.

As a composer as well, he’s also one of the key composers of South African music. It’s such a great pity that he obviously left us so early because you really start wondering what he would’ve done. He was really a great artist who also shook up the South African jazz scene.

Is going electric something you’ve thought of experimenting with?

At the moment I have to say I’m dedicated to acoustic music. And it’s a lifelong dedication to the mastery of the piano. It’s the kind of instrument that you just discover so many new things all the time if you work on it hard enough, you know? Trying to perfect that. There’s just so many technical facets to the instrument and sound production. I’m very sound conscious, more than most people would think, so and very conscious of the tonal range that this instrument really has. So at the moment I’m dedicated to the discovery of that and to the execution of all of the range of textures and colours that can come from this instrument.

Right, that painting metaphor again, Portrait of Home is clearly an apt title. So what’s next for Kyle?

I’m working towards doing a solo piano album, that for me is my ultimate goal. I also have to say on record, really, the two albums that I have out is only really beginning to portray what I’ve been thinking over the last while. Those first two albums really was doing what I was doing maybe a year or two ago. My thought process has moved on and on the next two albums I’m still going to be recording the work that has already been composed because I feel it is important to get that down on record.

But then i’m hoping to be able to move as an artist and work within all the sound that I really have inside of me because I’m listening to so much music. When I practice at home I realise that there is so much else I can do. But it usually comes out only in the solo playing because the trio thing has its sound and when we play with Buddy, the quartet also has its sound, which is fine and very strong and very fulfilling in itself. But I’m really working towards doing a solo piano album whether it be live or studio - or, maybe one live and one studio, you know? Because that’s where I really feel where I tune into the kind of influences I’m accumulating as an artist.

Interesting, would you say you’ve found your own voice yet?

Do I have a voice that’s my own unique voice? I would really say, ‘no’. A 23 year old doesn’t have a voice, not in jazz music, no way. I have to say that honestly. And anyone who thinks otherwise is probably a little naive. There’s no way that you don’t come from something. You don’t wake up and sit down at the piano and come up with this thing, you know? Excuse what I’m about to say, but there’s no bullshitting in this music! I know that older musicians, the so-called timers are quite ruthless about that. When they hear a kid just coming in with this hot bloodedness but doesn’t know anything, they can rip a….well, let’s just say I’ve had my run ins with the timers. When I was playing with them hated them all. And then I realised, ‘oh, thank heavens they said that to me’.

I’m so glad it was uncomfortable because it actually stuck with me, you know, for a long time! (laughs). There’s no kidding, you can’t fool another musician, and you also can’t fool older musicians who have realised the tradition thing, that they’ve come from somewhere.

Think of somebody like Thelonius Monk, it was also a process that led him to what we know as Monk. And in a way I’m so glad for that because I like the boundaries that can be knocked down every time I play if I want to. Especially again, in the solo thing I could really take it in any direction because I’m not bound by what the sound is. As jazz musicians there’s this considerable amount of study that goes into the work.

We’re operating within traditions, and I think that if somebody really plays and really gives of themselves, whatever they’re playing, so whether you’re playing a jazz standard or whether you’re playing an original composition, or an improvisation or anything, I think there’s always going to be a bit of you, what makes you particularly you in whatever you’re doing. We’re basically operating within sounds and just trying to give of ourselves honestly.

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