/ 12 February 2024

Skyjack: When ideation meets instinct

Skyjack Pic 2 (1)
In full flight: Light Cycle, the new album from jazz outfit Skyjack, who have been together for a decade, is due out this month. Photo: Lindsay Appolis

Skyjack have been around for more than 10 years — a three-South African, two-Swiss jazz quintet who got together, identifying instant musical like-mindedness, around the Jazzwerkstatt Bern and the National Arts Festival in Makhanda in 2012, with two albums (a self-titled 2015 debut and 2019’s The Hunter) already to their credit. 

But it’s hard, in terms of costs and logistics, to sustain a transnational outfit. Getting and staying together has always depended on securing substantial engagements.

It got harder for Skyjack during Covid, with leader and bassist Shane Cooper and pianist Kyle Shepherd confined to South Africa, reedman Marc Stucki and trombonist Andreas Tschopp in Switzerland, and then-drummer Kesivan Naidoo in the US and taking a break from playing. 

In 2021, the outfit even wondered if they should disband.

But that was never really on the cards. Close personal and playing relationships had grown, the band had contacts, fans and friends here and in Europe, and the conversations about music were still happening, albeit at a distance. 

Late that year, just as the world began, tentatively, to consider opening up, Skyjack started seeking their next drummer.

“It wasn’t originally going to be me,” says Jonno Sweetman, who eventually ended up behind the skins and cymbals. “They asked me for some suggestions of other people, auditioned and looked around a bit. 

“I’m already part of the Kyle Shepherd Trio with Shane — and nobody was aiming to recreate the Kyle Shepherd Trio but with two more horns.”

Despite that apprehension, after more thinking and listening, the rest of Skyjack decided that Sweetman’s was the rhythm sound they wanted. 

Stucki and Tschopp eventually came to Cape Town to see how the new combination would work. The result, the album Light Cycle, out from As-Shams this month, is definitely still Skyjack.

It’s not that another album from the Kyle Shepherd Trio, with whatever additions, would have been unwelcome. (In fact, can we ask for one soon?) But there’s a different kind of quicksilver fluidity about Skyjack, and a different collective texture that nobody wanted to lose. 

AllaboutJazz’s Dan Bilawsky located it in the “balance between ideation and instinct” when he reviewed The Hunter.

During that Cape Town studio work, Sweetman, who had worked with Tschopp but not Stucki before, found himself not only realising “this is going to work” but discovering fresh joys. 

Having experienced Shepherd as a leader, “when you see a strong leader working as a sideman, you see a different side of them — there’s a new kind of freedom there”. 

Sweetman’s playing experience has been in multiple other contexts, with what he terms “heavy jazz” not always the main one — though, remember, he’s also a Carlo Mombelli alumnus and it sometimes doesn’t get heavier than that. 

He never assumes, he says, he can “do everything. I had to do lots of homework, pre-preparation and rehearsal.” What carried him through was the band’s more equal and liberating collective process. 

“In jazz groups, I’m usually backing a leader and soloists. This was much more what I can call ‘being a part of it’. I had my chance to throw in my compositions and say, ‘Let’s do it this way,’ which isn’t my natural role.”

Sweetman contributed three of the album’s 13 tracks: the lyrical Porcupine, which he originally created on guitar; Hey Stranger (“something I’d laid down years ago”) and what he calls a “sketch”, which ended up on disc with the title given during rehearsal, Methods of Moments.

Sweetman’s audiences know he usually prefers a straightforward, minimalist drum kit. For Methods of Moments, however, “I used what for me was a really big, over-the-top kit, playing it free with the melodies above it, and the studio doors flung wide to the open air outside.”

The track captures that fresh, spontaneous feel. You can almost see those doors of perception flung wide. The music flowers out from textured rhythm patterns, with the brass and reed explorations above it increasingly intense and intertwined before stretching back into breath and air.

One of the joys of Light Cycle, though, is the diversity of visions it offers. It’s the opener, the bassist’s All the Flame, that will probably get radio play. It has one of those resonant, singing Cooper intros and an irresistibly catchy melodic hook. 

Stucki’s arrangement of a Swiss folk song, Morge Früeh Eh d’Sunne Lacht, moves from soaring saxophone improvisation into a jolly, rumpty-tumpty march, subsequently juxtaposing those two elements to profoundly subversive (but affectionate) effect — you open the music box and see the intricacy inside, not just the clockwork, but elastic springs and unexpected mechanism of change.

Shepherd’s title track is as catchy as Cooper’s opener, but infused with minor-key melancholy (its sub­title is Vang Gou die Strandloper); unmistakably jazz from the Cape but unconstrained by the externally imposed stereotypes too often burdening “Cape Jazz”. 

Time (musical and temporal) is liminal — one step from memory and legend. We hear Tschopp playing trombone the way South Africans know, invoking the spirits of Dugmore Silinga, Jonas Gwangwa and more.

Elsewhere, though, Tschopp displays a thrilling disrespect for the conventional idioms of his instrument that, for me, is one of the delights of the album. 

He calls up sounds you might rather expect from trumpet, saxophone or even the human voice. 

“We always say Andreas is the ‘real jazz guy’,” Sweetman reflects. 

Tschopp contributed two compositions: the helter-skelter, hard bop-ish Future Past and (with Cooper) Kudu Chant, rich in allusions to the music-making of First Peoples. 

“His songs are demanding to play,” says Sweetman. “And when you’re playing, he pulls you in and — musically — throws you round the room, so you’re, like, ‘What?’ But he always keeps you engaged.”

It’s naive to say of musicians like this — as if it was unexpected — that everybody plays beautifully. Let’s just say Light Cycle is still Skyjack as you know it. 

Which means, of course, outside the familiar joyful collectivity and recognisable instrumental voices, it’s crammed with so many musical delights, ambushes and surprises that you shouldn’t, in advance, think you know it at all.