Jazz is not a competitive sport. For propaganda reasons during the Cold War, the United States peddled a mythology of individualism around jazz — but inspired improvisation is actually only possible as part of collective endeavour. Players strive to shine in technical reach and imagination, and they are freed to take those risks because, in trombonist George Lewis’s words, they know the rest of the ensemble has “got their back”. It’s one of the most African aspects of the music, with roots that can be traced back to ring-shouts and beyond.
What, then, do events such as the MTN South African Music Awards (the Samas, whose 19th edition looms) really mean for jazz? In music genres with very little to distinguish one mass-produced commodity from another, the accolade provides a unique selling point. Winners in the big-label stables can look forward to more generous promotional budgets — though as a jazz nominee astutely remarked a few years back: “Ten cents would be more promotion than I’ve had up to now” — increased airplay and probably support for a subsequent release.
But many South African jazz players gave up on the big labels a long time ago and are creating, licensing and sometimes distributing their own work. Watch TV, listen to most radio stations or trawl the aisles of chain retailers and you’ll soon see there are very few spaces to accommodate increased jazz airplay or promotion — although the musical equivalent of publishing’s “Booker effect” may mean more potential customers walking into those stores and failing to find the winner.
However, for the first year in several, this year’s nominee list does tell us something about the real state of South African jazz, with five strong contenders and not a single make-weight nonentity or bland fusioneer.
There are two vocalists — Lindiwe Maxolo with her debut, Time, and Tutu Puoane with her fourth, Breathe. Sedibeng-born, University of Cape Town-trained Maxolo is a newcomer as leader, although she has paid her dues as a well-respected support artist. She has assembled and co-written a very interesting selection of original songs, sung with skill and an impressive sense of timing. As a debut, Time is a showcase for range rather than individuality, but Maxolo certainly can sing. Puoane has been recording for long enough to define precisely who she is. She also creates much of her own material and sings it with perfect diction and fearless transitions between melodic simplicity and improvisations (often in Sepedi) that are satisfyingly complex without ever becoming fussy or crowded. For me, her singing is as close to perfect as a work in progress such as jazz can get, while remaining grounded in some very earthy roots.
The three nominated instrumentalists are veteran reedman Steve Dyer (for Ubuntu Music), Jo’burg’s go-to bassist, Herbie Tsoaeli (for African Time), and Cape Town pianist Kyle Shepherd (for South African History X).
Tsoaeli took a risk with his fans by playing less bass and vocalising more on African Time, but a bass-player’s ear and concept are audible in the subtly shifting pulses that underpin every track. The album is also a solid demonstration of Tsoaeli’s skill as arranger and leader, melding African tradition and hard bop; old musical comrades and a younger generation.
Dyer has been in the Sama lists before and has already won a Kora, but Ubuntu Music is different from his half-dozen previous releases: riskier, more diverse, and powerfully moving. He has said that, among the many, layered meanings of ubuntu, this project explores the mesh of relationships that go into music-making. His album deploys all the elements of historic South African jazz in fresh ways.
The title of Shepherd’s third album plays on the sounds of the Nama language and hidden mathematical and slave histories, and the compositions — more accomplished than ever — offer narratives of the routes between identities and sounds. The music is beautiful, the ensemble (Buddy Wells, Jonno Sweetman, Shane Cooper) intense and empathetic.