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Grahamstown Jazz: Why not?

2008-07-03 17:56
Most of us are vaguely aware that jazz, particularly blues, lies at the roots of almost all modern music. So, what’s to be afraid of? Crack open the Red Hot Chili Peppers, AC/DC or even Freshlyground, and you’ll find a beating heart of jazz. Come now, aren’t you just a little bit curious where the magic comes from?

The Standard Bank Jazz Festival at Grahamstown had that magic. It was like a spiritual congregation, but for cool cats with Vespas and Mini Coopers. If you were feeling the music, for instance, you could shout it out, shout anything, just to let the band know you were there too. If you tapped your foot loudly or clapped your hands, that would be fine, as long as you kept time with your neighbours.

And the solos. If you dig solos, you'd have loved Saturday Night Funk with Dave O’ Higgins, UK master saxophonist: talented, groovy, totally in love with himself. It was the kind of music that everyone instinctively knows how to dance to, and kind of did, as best as they could in their seats. No doubt, James Browns’ funky ghost was doing the splits right above everyone’s bobbing heads. And as each groovy solo reached its climax, a clapping riot would break out. Too bad for Dave, though, as made the mistake of letting US drumming maestro Carl Allen be his cheerleader. “Do it!”, “Say it!” Carl said, as Dave whizzed through some scales, “Alright, stop.” And so he did, turning slightly red: it was a gem of good-natured jazz comedy.
On Sunday, a traditional big band was assembled for the odd task of reworking the lyrics of Israeli singer songwriter Shalom Hanoch. This went better than you might expect: the horn section was on its best groovy behaviour, under confident direction by Amikam Kimelman, also of Israel. There was a lot more gray hair in the auditorium than Saturday, but that just proved that there’s a jazzy niche for everyone, young and old. In the end, the show transcended its somewhat alien premise to become a solid showcase of the great big band tradition.

But not all jazz musos have played with Herbie Hancock. Not all of them have rubbed shoulders with Frank Sinatra or held the main stage at the Cape Town International Jazz festival. For them, the Cuervo Music Room hosted a series of jazz evenings where smaller acts could make an impression.

That was where the Ikhwezi band proved that the jazz world is not just a secret club for the upper middle class. Their outing at Cuervo was about the sound of the townships: a merry, jiving romp that owed its power equally to gospel and afro-pop. The Harare soul train, Dudu Manhenga & Color Blu, also played a fan-winning set, but the best tunes of the night were sandwiched neatly in the middle and belonged to a motley crew of jazz pirates called Udaba.

Having played only a few shows here or there in the last year, the group re-assembled at 12 am sharp on the day of their first show with a fresh line-up, worked out some tunes and then blew everyone’s socks right off come gig time. How that casual arrangement led to such a brilliant clash of progressive music and Xhosa lyrical tradition is any idiot’s guess. But it was dynamite, and re-introduced neo soul and improvisational jazz to each other in a way that could easily set a larger stage on fire. It all read like the dawning of South African jazz’s very own Freshlyground Plus. We can only hope.

- Niel Bekker
Jazz concerts can be scary places for normal folk. Why does the audience make funny whooping noises, we wonder, and why can’t they just sit still in their seats? Then of course there’s the nagging feeling that it’s all a bunch of elitist bullcrap, indulgent music for the chosen few who know a half-tone from a dial-tone and bunked school to do Eisteddfods.

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