Jazz plays on in ZAR

You start to suspect that jazz in Jo’burg might really be dead when players start penning elegies for it. That’s exactly what trumpet and flugelhorn player Marcus Wyatt has done, with the track Goodbye ­Sunday, his release on the album ZAR, launched earlier this month.

Wyatt still headlines one of the city’s few remaining jam sessions: a regular but peripatetic Wednesday night, currently housed at Wish in Melville. ‘But I started remembering all the options we used to have to get together and play—sometimes two gigs on a Sunday.” He sighs.
‘That’s all gone now.”

ZAR is a quartet album, featuring pianist Afrika Mkhize, bassist Prince Bulo and drummer Justin Badenhorst. Wyatt says he has both practical and creative reasons for using a format smaller than his other combo, Language 12: ‘2010 was a really good year for Language 12: then [vocalist and trombonist] Siya Makuzeni took time out to have a child; our pianist Melissa van der Spuy was based in Cape Town; we needed to use lots of electronics so always had to employ a sound engineer—in all sorts of ways, the costs and logistics of sustaining that larger group became difficult at that time.

‘But I also realised that over nearly eight years of Wednesday jams, I’d built up quite a stack of unrecorded material of my own. The Language12 album came out quite a while ago and it was time to start putting a marker on all that work.” ZAR‘s eight tracks were recorded over a single day and capture the feel of a live ­session.

Spontaneously developed
Wyatt is modest about what ZAR is: ‘It’s a straightforward jazz album: it’s all about the playing”. That understates what a listener will hear: five tracks by Wyatt, two spontaneously developed by the group during the session and one structured around a Carlo Mombelli bass line.

The centrepiece is the 13-minute Devotion, shaped by Wyatt’s experiences of India. ‘I’ve travelled there a couple of times, and while Devotion isn’t an attempt at ‘Indian’ music, it’s definitely inspired by Indian modalities and the particular headspace I found.”

The track features echoing percussion and horn and compelling piano work from Mkhize that dances from percussive to lyrical and back.

‘Africa has such an intense musical focus that it’s impossible for the audience not to be drawn in.”
Wyatt is full of praise for all his current co-players, both those on the album and others such as drummer Clement Benny, with whom he works the Wednesday-night jam. ‘Maintaining a consistently good tone on trumpet is hard. When there are regular gigs, it’s like you’re fit from the gym; at other times, it’s much tougher. But these musos are so good, I don’t need to always have a good night. They challenge me, and for me that’s a necessary exercise in learning to let go, hand over, trust them and remember that I’m also still learning.”

Of Wyatt’s previous albums—Gathering, Africans in Space and Language12—he says the 2002-recorded second remains his favourite. On ZAR, he revisits the track Umculu Wakwantu as Little Ones.

‘I’m suddenly starting to really enjoy playing it again,” he says. The opening track, Lindiwe (inspired by his partner), ‘is one of those tunes in the established South African jazz style. I don’t write too many of those. In this one, the musical feel is pitched somewhere halfway between Jo’burg and Cape Town. Also, it’s about waking up in the morning with happiness in my life.”

A personal marker
There are musical as well as personal reasons for the happiness. Wyatt is at the end of a decade in which he says he’s been ‘drawing ideas from working with colleagues, too many to list, but including Buddy Wells in Cape Town, Carlo Mombelli’s Prisoners of Strange ensemble, and many more. I’m not regularly in those groups any more. And the whole experience—working with those people and not—has allowed me to grow and find myself.”

So ZAR is equally a repertoire project, a personal marker on a life-stage and ‘just a bunch of guys getting together and playing good tunes”. The CD artwork also signals Wyatt’s growing interest in another creative field: photography.

‘I’ve just had some photographs published in Kulula magazine and that felt really good. If there’s one thing that feels almost more natural now than playing, it’s photographs. I love it at least as much.”

The imagery is a patchwork of ancient yellow South African number plates found tacked to the wall of a Kalahari café. ‘Being a muso is all about travelling: our tunes travel all over and playing with different people is also a journey.” As for the title, ‘ZAR is kind of double-edged, slightly tongue-in-cheek. I’ve always had issues with people putting a monetary value on music. On the other hand, it says very clearly: this is South African.”

Wyatt’s next journey is to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, where he will play alongside Bokani Dyer. And, with ZAR completed, ‘there’s a whole other book of tunes I need to gather for the next Language12”.

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