/ 22 June 2017

International Jazz Extravaganza: memorable shows, haphazard production

Clap along: Pianist Monty Alexander doing what he does best: being the life of the party and
Clap along: Pianist Monty Alexander doing what he does best: being the life of the party and

International Jazz Extravaganza chief executive Sindile Xulu loves to differentiate between the terms “extravaganza” and “festival”. At a Durban press conference to welcome musicians to the second annual event, she again makes the distinction.

Perhaps in KwaZulu-Natal it is a worthwhile variation, invoked to set this particular event apart from countless others billed as jazz festivals and yet don’t feature a shred of improvised music.

On a Saturday evening (June 17), Durban’s music lovers turn up to the International Convention Centre in their numbers, with the floor seats seeming about 66% full at peak attendance. It is a number that shrinks rapidly after the show hits the halfway mark, with headliner Nduduzo Makhathini playing to a nearly emptied auditorium.

Makhathini, who mostly showcases songs from his upcoming album Ikhambi, is preceded on stage by fellow pianist Thandi Ntuli, American vocalist Kurt Elling and Caribbean pianist Monty Alexander.

With intervals of about half an hour in between each act and a starting time beyond 7pm, it’s not surprising that the headline act leaves the stage somewhere around 3am. Ntuli, the opener, plays a set that is uplifting in its diversity. Joined by Benjamin Jephta on bass, Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums, Keenan Ahrends on guitar, Mthunzi Mvubu (alto sax and flute), Linda Sikhakhane (tenor sax) and Justin Sasman on trombone, Ntuli’s sound is underpinned by a charismatic understated funk.

Using her voice more often than usual and opting for the Fender Rhodes piano more often than the grand piano, Ntuli’s sound is under reconstruction, with the influence of her other collaborative projects (such as Rebirth of Cool) finding a place in her set.

Mazibuko’s propulsive drumming, usually delivered with a disarming smile, gives the music a futuristic drive that opens up its sonic possibilities. Ntuli and Ahrends’ soloing styles are more devotional than showy, adding to the meditative properties of the music.

Later, a suited-up Elling, backed by a four-piece band, delivers songs ranging in tempo and mood to an adoring audience, capping off his set with a typically showman-like cover of Stevie Wonder’s Golden Lady. Elling’s vocal command is almost unparalleled. His confident scatting and bold phrasing has his audience giddy, a reaction that probably explains quite a bit about the festival’s positioning.

The overall feel of the production is suggestive of a thinking that views jazz as something synonymous with age-based sophistication. As sure-footed and poised as Ntuli is earlier, it seems it is Elling’s classical leaning delivery that is the people’s choice.

By the time the affable Alexander takes to the stage, the crowd is beginning to thin. Alexander imbues the idea of jazz with a strong sense of geography, infusing his repertoire with a calypso lilt, hard-driving dub-like grooves and funky guitar licks.

A Jamaican plying his trade in the United States, there isn’t a sound Alexander cannot put his spin on. His piano can switch from a harmonic tool to a driver of rhythm in a second. In fact, so central is rhythm to Alexander’s sound that his five-piece band features two drummers, each one provid­ing subtle backing to the one taking the lead.

Even beyond the stage, Alexander gives to the festival an air of graciousness and unbridled fun, pulling up on fans to sign newly purchased albums and indulging them in post-show banter. In other words, his on-stage persona seems to parallel the person he is offstage.

A man seated next to me repeatedly shouts “Zim Ngqawana” as the sombre horn lines at the beginning of Makhathini’s Amathambo begin. I don’t blame him. Makhathini is in that space where he is channelling people and their stories.

He plays songs for university students, fallen family members, departed musicians and songs about cultural rites — all different songs that unfold as if they are one single suite with flowing movements.

There is an incredible unity of purpose on display from the band, something that will doubtlessly resonate with the audience long after the event. The heartbreaking part is that, because of the looseness of the production, less than half the initial audience gets to see this performance.

Should the International Jazz Extravaganza live on for more editions, the festival would do well to explore the idea of two or more stages, giving its audience just enough time to move between acts, rather than the time-consuming current setup where half an hour elapses between shows.

Convention centres as music venues have their positive sides logistically, but they do take away from the intimacy of the listening experience. Also, moving forward, the festival may have to have to do more to dispel ideas about jazz as grown-up people’s music. Although the ticket prices (R600 for one) may be prohibitive for younger audiences, its programme of lead-up shows democraticises the brand. But in addition, it may help to plug more into the city’s, and indeed the country’s, jazz scenes, where talent is not lacking and the genre’s future audiences dwell.

Also, as a festival that invites and hosts guests who may not necessarily be musicians but form part of the cultural value chain, more attention to detail could be paid to shaping how these guests perceive Durban as a jazz destination.