Jazz spun into an ideal orbit

We all loathe people who describe South African music, film or art as “world class”. The assumption that there’s an external model to which we need to aspire, dictated by the larger global community, really grates. Which is why many of us find the pay-off line of the City of Jo’burg laughable. “A world-class African city”? Really? When will we get an African-class world, City of Jo’burg?

So what I’m about to do is fraught with contradiction, but I console myself with the following thought: jazz is a universal language, but spoken in countless dialects. And great jazz clubs seem to mimic the logic of the genre that begat them. They’re all based on a common model but with localised expressions.

So at the risk of provoking knee-jerk invective, I’m making the following proposition: The Orbit jazz club in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, is as good as anywhere you’ll find in the jazz world.

Oh, the joy of a venue that is about the musicians, not the customers. Before every show I’ve attended at The Orbit, the MC reminds the audience that they need to shut up. If there’s a really, really important conversation that you need to have, he tells them, feel free to go and have it outside. Paradoxically, of course, what could be seen as a flouting of that tired old adage, “the customer is always right”, is actually a way of giving great and lasting customer satisfaction.

Naturally, this being Johannesburg, it doesn’t always work. Watching the great Carlo Mombelli gentle his softly dense music out of his incredible band recently, there were moments when the conversations of rude people intruded, and the more devout in the audience had to deploy that aggressive susurration that is the unfortunate leitmotif of most jazz gigs in South Africa. But on the whole, the audience at The Orbit knows why they’re there, and behave accordingly.

Moody blues
I’m not suggesting that The Orbit is a pious temple to polo necks: the mood at gigs varies according to the artists performing. When the Swiss-Ethiopian Imperial Tiger Orchestra played there, the venue cleared a dance floor for gyrating Ethiopian expats to shake their nostalgic booty, with the help of some brave locals, and it turned into a raucous party.

And there’s the middle ground of someone like trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana, whose repertoire varied from the lyricism of Moses Molelekwa’s Down Rockey Street to more rousing numbers that required vocal audience participation.

Reza Khota, who, if you weren’t afraid to risk inanity, you could describe as a jazz version of Jack White (eclectic, experimental, un-afraid to veer precipitously from loud to quiet to loud without pandering to his listeners), also demanded an audience that understood the fine line between homage and heckling.

The Reza Khota Quartet. (David Harrison, M&G)

But back to my invidious international comparison. The Orbit reflects the best of clubs such as the Blue Note or Village Vanguard in New York, or the Vortex in London. It’s not just the dedication to the music.

The service is professional and unobtrusive, without sacrificing personality.

Nobody goes to a club like the Blue Note for the food (and of course the Village Vanguard sneers at the idea of eating while listening to jazz), but you’ll enjoy the meal they serve you.

Eclectic menu
The Orbit provides a similar experience, although the menu is way more eclectic, reflective of the migrant influences around it, and perhaps the owners’ personalities. (If you’re looking for a recommendation, try the mushroom and leek croquettes, or the lamb meatballs with tzatziki.)

Where The Orbit does differ radically from the clubs I’ve mentioned is in the fact that you aren’t squeezed cheek to modishly unshaven jowl with your fellow jazz fans. It’s situated in Braamfontein, in the beautiful, spacious ex-premises of the now defunct Narina Trogon restaurant. There are venues downstairs and upstairs, although upstairs seems to be where the serious gigs take place.

Carlo Mombelli. (Tawedzerwa Zhou)

When I think of how uncomfortably crowded a club like Vortex in London gets, The Orbit is a luxury. Last time I was at Vortex, watching Louis Moholo, the trombonist had to aim his slide carefully between patrons’ heads to avoid putting out an eye. By contrast, the tables at The Orbit are set well apart, and the drink you order actually has a chance of getting to you before the gig’s over.

According to eminent critic Gwen Ansell (and she would know), The Orbit is named after In Orbit, a 1958 Clark Terry album. That bespeaks a healthy regard for the legacy trappings of jazz, but the variety of musicians booked from all over the world speaks to another strength, that of experimentation and inclusiveness.

Simply put, frequenting The Orbit is a great way to stay in touch with our local jazz musos, but it’s also an excellent opportunity to forge new relationships with visitors from all over our continent.

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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