/ 2 June 2023

Quartet’s ‘Gratitude’ tour as right as rain


Album Review: Banz Oester and the Rainmakers – Gratitude (forthcoming, Enja records)

Swiss bassist Banz Oester’s quartet The Rainmakers are no strangers to South Africa. In a slightly different incarnation, they played the National Arts Festival and the Cape Town International Jazz Festival as far back as 2015. 

The quartet itself is 50% South African, with Afrika Mkhize on piano and Ayanda Sikade on drums. For those early visits, the reedman was Ganesh Geymeier; these days, it’s Spaniard Javier Vercher. 

The Rainmakers arrive this month, on a South African launch tour for their forthcoming album Gratitude. 

The tour will see them play various venues in Cape Town, at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda and, in early July, Johannesburg. 

Like 2021’s Playing at the Bird’s Eye and Ukuzinikela, Gratitude is a live album. That’s the perfect context to appreciate the empathy the musicians have developed over the years, picking up, exploring and growing each other’s ideas in the moment. 

The Rainmakers’ sound has a clear line of descent back to the “spiritual jazz” of the 1960s, identified with John Coltrane and those around him in the States, and players such as Duku Makasi and Winston Mankunku Ngozi here. In South Africa that full, searching, yearning saxophone sound never went out of fashion — you can hear it today from saxophonists such as Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Sisonke Xonti, Mthunzi Mvubu, Simon Manana and more. If they catch your heartstrings, then Vercher’s your man in this group.

From this, you may gather that The Rainmakers are, in some ways, a gorgeously old-fashioned jazz group. Four good musicians who simply get together on a stage (often the Bird’s Eye in Basel) and play their own and some other people’s tunes, relishing the space to stretch out and improvise for as long as the conversation stays inspired. 

The album’s six extended tracks over an hour include compositions by Oester (Transformation), Vercher (Blue Heron), Sikade (Gaba) and Mkhize (Ode to Keith) — a complete, engrossing set at a very good jazz club indeed.

Oester has spoken about wanting “to communicate with the other musicians on an equal footing” and that’s certainly the mood of the session. Everybody gets ample space, but nobody grandstands or dominates and it takes until the penultimate track Gaba for us to hear an extended bass solo from the leader. 

Before that, he and Sikade spend a lot of time lovingly painting sonic scenery for the other two. Sikade manages the colours and dynamics; Oester constructs a reliable, yet subtly detailed, scaffolding. 

When the drum feature does arrive — flowering from an ecstatic, impassioned conversation with Vercher on Transformation — it’s all the more powerful for that previous restraint.

Sometimes, in tight-knit group music like this, I wish there was an option to isolate drum or bass tracks, to hear more clearly the intriguing ideas in that layer of the music.

Despite its roots in spiritual jazz, there’s nothing boilerplate even to  that pattern about the Rainmakers’ sound. They are also heirs to the free jazz tradition and to approaches inspired by global music. 

They can sound, by turns, swinging and spiky; lively and languorous; impressionistic and assertive; tonal, atonal or modal as the mood of each number demands. 

There are themes you can walk away humming and allusions to waltz, tango, ballad, blues — even raga. None of this bricolage is either careless or appropriative — it’s woven to express a pan-human, joyous vision of freedom. 

Consider Mkhize’s pianism, whose acknowledged guiding spirit is another self-declared pan-human, Bheki Mseleku. Mkhize has always acknowledged the Mseleku influence but it emerges not in sounding like the late Durban-born pianist — he doesn’t — but rather in thinking through the possibilities of a tune in a very similar way. 

Mkhize has a similar fondness for taking a straightforward theme and turning it into a Catherine wheel, throwing off musical sparks as it spirals out into space, whether he’s hitting the keyboard with crashing intensity (Jaipur) or picking out delicate flecks of sound (Blue Heron). 

Mkhize’s Ode to Keith closes the album — a warm, deep blue hug for another influential piano player.  

Soloing, Mkhize once explained to a journalist, “is like my grandmother’s food. Only I know when to stop because my stomach is full.” 

In a collective music such as jazz, everybody in the group has to be as good at listening as playing, to catch that moment when their colleague is ready to pass the sonic serving-dish. The Rainmakers have that gift down perfectly — no spiritual nourishment is ever wasted, and nobody, least of all the listener, leaves the musical table unsatisfied.