Kyle Shepherd confronts the darkness with sound

Award winning pianist and adept improviser Kyle Shepherd recently released a new solo piano record. It’s a result of his search for solace at his piano as the world wrestled with inventing a new grammar to articulate life in a pandemic. Aptly titled After the Night, the Day Will Surely Come, The album is an example of art as a bulwark against hopelessness. 

In this interview, the pianist talks to Percy Mabandu about the record and the conditions that made it possible. 

Percy Mabandu: Let’s start by acknowledging how weird the pandemic and its effect on social and family life has been. How have you managed to maintain some sense of a normal healthy existence?

Kyle Shepherd: It’s been an incredibly trying time for myself and many people in my field. The opportunity to consistently perform for people in person is an intrinsic part of what being an artist is. And being an artist is so intrinsic to our definition of self as a creative person. So the discrepancy is obvious. I’ve kept relatively occupied with my work as a composer for films and TV which fortunately is an industry that has not been too adversely affected, but the amputation of my outlet as a performer from my life has certainly been trying. Making this album in many ways was an attempt at making sense of an uncertain future for myself. A type of “if I can’t play for you in person, then I will put myself in a studio to try and express myself in a terribly uncertain situation as a person and musician”.   

Congratulations on your new record, After the Night, the Day Will Surely Come. It is clearly a response to the darkness of Covid-19 moment and its hardships. Tell me about the emotional reality around your decision to create the album.

As said above, it very much was a case of a need to just play. A need that otherwise would be satisfied by touring or a regular concert schedule that I’ve become accustomed to. So it was a personal exercise of sorts at first. Then it became a meditation and reflection on the times. I felt hopeful after playing, without overly romanticising the process, but the music can be a wonderful conduit for reflection. Then, of course, now that we have an album, a document frozen in time, I hope that the listener can now too use it as a musical moment to reflect and to feel hopeful. 

The new album is made up largely of new improvised revisitations of well-travelled melodies. Talk to me about how you selected the songs you chose to reinterpret and play on the new record.

I’m very comfortable to admit that I had no preparation process besides my daily practice of the instrument. I just wanted to show up and play. So revisiting older material allowed me to play pieces that I was very familiar with and could play through and reinterpret without much thought, only awareness of the moment and my feelings in that moment. 

The music on this record feels prayerful and meditative. As a listener, I keep thinking how much of a challenge it is to record with a “song form” in mind and not simply yield to the improvisational urges to fly?

It is reflective and meditative because that is the space that I and most people were in in 2020 … mostly dumbfounded and awestruck at what our lives became and evidently still are. What I needed at that time was to quiet the news and covid stats and just let the music play. 

The rear cover of Kyle Shepherds’ solo piano album, After the Night, the Day Will Surely Come, with liner notes by Percy Mabandu. (Matsuli Music)

The record was produced in partnership with Matsuli Records. How did that relationship come about? 

I was turned on to Matsuli by their many great reissues of older albums. I was very happy to know once talking to them that they were also very open to new work. We had a great synergy as a team, and it takes a team to produce an album especially on vinyl. It’s also true that I really wanted this record to be specifically  known as a “vinyl album release”… Something specific to the format. 

Another notable beautiful aspect to the record is the cover art. The art photography of Leon Krige. Talk to me about that image and how you got the choice to use it on the record?

I’ve been a fan of Leon’s analogue photography for quite a few years after we met and became friends at The Orbit jazz club. I feel there’s something about the image that relates to the title. A long shot looking down on a city of people. At once filled with dread but also with the hope of a people looking forward to a life post pandemic.  

This is your second solo piano record. However, you’ve gone through a lot of life and learning since Into Darkness (2014). You grew into a successful film score composer and began working with William Kentridge’s theatre production. How has this affected your sound and your thinking about song making as a form?

I see all these varied projects as different avenues of a personal expression and I see more similarities in genres than I do differences. There are challenges however … Working on a film or a Netflix series presents tremendous scheduling and time management challenges, a different type of discipline to being on stage improvising which is raw and in the moment. I enjoy having the opportunity to operate on both sides of the coin. 

The solo piano tradition holds a special place in jazz, and classical music too. What meaning does this form — the solo piano form — hold for you as a musician and pianist?

I‘ve always been drawn to the solo piano format since watching Abdullah Ibrahim play every weekend for a month at the old Warehouse Theatre in Green Point almost 20 years ago, to my love of Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor. I’m drawn to the sound. The sufficiency the instrument has unto itself. 

The jazz piano has a long tradition in South Africa too. The figure and spectre of Abdullah Ibrahim is at the helm of it. As a young pianist with roots in the Cape jazz piano tradition, you’ve found yourself often compared to Abdullah Ibrahim too. How has this affected how you think about your own space in the music?

Jazz is a music and art form that requires and rewards serious study of legacies of previous masters. The comparison doesn’t bother me. It used to bother me when I was younger. I remember, bra Zim Ngqawana once said this to me: ‘You are from the same city, you play the same instrument and are shaped by the same culture and politics,’ If there was a shadow to be under, is there a better shadow to be under? Is there a better master to be compared with?’ 

Talk about how you prepare for a concert or recording session for a solo piano album like After the Night … compared to records with the trio or larger groups?

Recording with a band is a process of a lot of preparation. From composing, arranging and then also rehearsing and workshopping the material with the band. Again, another kind of discipline. Solo can absolutely be the same, but in the case of After the Night I chose to walk in, sit down and record in a very open and raw way, and to just let the music flow. 

On January 28, The Kyle Shepherd Trio (with Jonno Sweetman on drums and Kyle Shepherd on bass) plays Leano Restaurant and Live Music in Braamfontein. Tickets are available on Quicket at R300.

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Percy Mabandu
Percy Mabandu is an art historian and freelance writer based in The city of Tshwane.

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