Shane Cooper: Award-winning bass player has many strings to his bow

Electric and upright bass player Shane Cooper was born in Port Elizabeth in 1985 and now lives in Cape Town. Long before he started studying music professionally, he had picked up a guitar and was jamming and listening to records at home with his drummer brother. Loves: “That I get to make a living from playing music.”

Cooper attended Victoria Park High in Port Elizabeth, where he joined the school band aged 14. Music teacher Graham Beyer got him listening “to everything” and Cooper migrated from rock guitar towards jazz and to the bass, drawn by the intriguing grooves. Soon, music took over to the point at which he persuaded his parents to let him home-school and make more room for it. He graduated from the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town in 2008 with a degree in jazz performance, and won several prizes along the way, including the Jazz Studies Medal.

High-school band gigs were soon augmented by club and hotel dates around PE, often in company with Beyer. At that stage, Cooper was playing predominantly covers and learning to cope with audience requests for some distinctly ungroovy sounds. He was also rubbing shoulders with other PE players in a city with rich jazz traditions and speaks with as much respect about lessons learned from Beyer and Gerard O’Brien (Genuines) as about those from the classic recordings of Charles Mingus and Ron Carter.

All the great names of the bass — Jaco Pastorius (“It wasn’t just the chops, it was his musicality and lyricism too”), Ray Brown, Larry Grenadier, Scott la Faro, Jimmy Garrison and more. Also some more contemporary bass voices, such as Derrick Hodge, who “plays hip-hop in a jazz band” and Richard Bona, for bringing something fresh to the instrument’s sounds by drawing on African tradition.

Cooper’s bass playing has run the gamut of Cape Town, from Louis Moholo-Moholo to groups like Babu with Kesivan Naidoo, Restless Natives and Closet Snare. He has provided support for vocalists such as Melanie Scholtz and Lisa Bauer and has found particular joy in collaborations with pianist Kyle Shepherd (“He writes those kinds of very African bass lines which stand out with their melody but still support the groove”). He has toured extensively, visiting New York as part of the late Zim Ngqawana’s Zimology Quartet, including a gig at The Knitting Factory. Cooper also does sound design and music production for websites, television, theatre and film, and was co-composer for the award-winning stage production, Afrikaaps, co-produced by Amsterdam’s Glasshouse and Cape Town’s Baxter ­Theatre Centre.

Cooper is also Card on Spokes, creator of leftfield electronic and hip-hop sounds. The first EP appeared in 2010; a second has just been completed, featuring Goldfish vocalist Sakhile Moleshe and guest jazz singer Nicky Schrire.

Cooper currently plays a “40-year-old plywood Czech bass” bought second-hand in PE a long time ago. He has had many modifications made to it through the years to coax the sound he needs from it.

Cooper doesn’t have a single, narrow playing style: he loves collaborations and, when he’s not leading, aims to deliver what the context demands. Whether electric or acoustic, his instrumental voice is distinctively generous and lyrical, “but when I’m playing acoustic, I go for a woodier sound, with a very bold bottom end”.

After recordings with many of the names above, he has just finished his first jazz album as leader. It was produced by Carlo Mombelli and features 10 original compositions in collaboration with pianist Bokani Dyer, drummer Naidoo, guitarist Reza Khota and reedmen Justin Bellairs and Buddy Wells.

With longtime Swiss musical friends Berne-based trombonist Andreas Schopp and saxophonist Marc Stuckl, Naidoo on drums and Shepherd on piano, and also with his own quartet — Naidoo, Dyer, Bellairs and Khota. And probably popping up as sideman on bass all over the place.


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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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