Coverage of last weekend’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival threatens to be dominated by the near-irrelevant fact that Lauryn Hill’s lacklustre set emptied the huge Kippie’s hall faster than a shout of ‘free booze outside!’
At precisely the same moment, saxophonist Donald Harrison, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Lenny White were leading a packed and breathless Rosie’s audience, transcendent, up Seven Steps to Heaven — but that wasn’t news.
The empty hall reminds us that even schizophrenic Cape Town — split between fans of a challenging improvised music called jazz, and of an infectious, lightweight style made for ‘jazzing’ — can still tell gold from gravel.
Gold there was a-plenty. That Harrison’s trio were sublime was as unsurprising as that Hill wasn’t. Yet inside their set (a simple list of standards) the musical surprises kept coming: I Can’t Get Started interpreted by Harrison on the modes; Ron Carter’s solo on You Are My Sunshine offering an encyclopedia of virtuoso bass technique wrapped in warmth and wit.
The saxophonist — better known to Jo’burg audiences from Joy of Jazz visits in his good-time incarnation as ‘the King of Nouveau Swing’ — grows with every outing. He’s described jazz as ‘telling your own stories’, and, particularly in his work with Carter, those stories are becoming ever-richer in audacity, joy and intellectual challenge.
Compelling — and often deep-rooted South African — stories characterised this year’s jazz festival: the one that sits inside all the other ‘lifestyle’ flim-flam.
Herbie Tsoaeli told of a jazz past shaped by Xhosa tradition, in music that borrowed the chords of overtone singing, and charted their road into the future. Steve Dyer, in what was perhaps the most moving set of the weekend, offered bittersweet tales questioning how we relate to one another in an ostensibly new South Africa still burdened by the same old greed and exclusion.
Andre Peterson’s Quintet picked up a similar theme, with his composition War of Perception carrying Cornell West’s minatory words about an American foreign policy shaped by fear. This was music in a more sombre mood than we often hear from the pianist, but beautiful and breathtakingly skilful in execution. Another surprise was his saxophonist, Marcus Strickland, an American who managed to remind us in some barnstorming solos of the commentary Robbie Jansen, Mankunku or Basil Coetzee might have given on the stories.
And then there were the tales from elsewhere. Beijing pianist Xia Jia presented minimalist compositions played with great skill, warmth and openness. Minimalism isn’t always the warmest jazz style, but Xia’s trio — and especially bassist Zhang Ke — had an appealing way of segueing from composed motif to groove that caught his audience’s hearts. Cuban wunderkind Alfredo Rodriguez played with all the death-defying speed and complexity that his album heralded, but there were also new, delightful stories from Reiner Elizarde Ruane. The bassist made the tricky business playing of seven-clave rhythms against eight-clave feel as joyous and comical as toddlers tumbling across a playground.
The most magnificent story, in its poignancy and power, came from Dorothy Masuku, performing with more musical intelligence and swing in her little finger than some of the pouty little girls on other stages had in their entire bodies. Ms Masuku had composed most of these songs across a historic half-century career; she called the tunes, directed the band – and still managed to embarrass a man in the front row with a sexy-as-hell Mr Wonderful directed straight at him. All this from the discomfort of a tiny, shabby, white plastic chair: the best the organisers could rustle up to support a pinched nerve in the veteran’s left hip. She made us want to cry, and cheer, and dance, in a set that was long overdue at the festival and far too short.
As for the rest, the sound was as usual excellent in Rosie’s and the Molelekwa hall, and as mushy as tinned peas elsewhere. Time slippages were not as disastrous as last year, but they happened; moving bodies slowly in and out of venues in a CTICC that is now feeling corset-tight for the event is a problem that must be solved soon. But MCs also need to be tougher; Patti Austin’s hubristic 45-minute overrun was unforgiveable. The extra ticketing for Rosie’s was poorly-explained both in printed material and by ushers, and caused much unnecessary friction.
Most irritating this year was the programming, which created clashes between acts likely to attract precisely the same demographic: Tsoaeli and Dyer; Victor Kula and Adam Glasser’s Mzansi; Masuka and Hugh Masekela’s Makeba tribute (that one rather disrespectful to the living icon too); Donald Harrison and David Sanchez. It’s always going to be impossible to see all the acts, but perhaps the organisers might consider more careful thought to such overlaps next year. And perhaps those sour souls who infested the Twittersphere complaining that they found no jazz at the event might next year heave their bellies away from the bar, turn off their iPhones, and climb the stairs.