‘The shape of jazz to come?’ – CT Jazz Fest 2012; Rolling Stone Review

Punters and purists partied with a purpose at Africa’s Grandest Gathering by Evan Milton, Anton Marshall and Miles Keylock. A review of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2012 written as a joint three-way review for Rolling Stone South Africa, and edited down from the words of three intrepid pairs of ears jostling independently between the five stages over the two nights. Read Evan Milton’s full review of part of the festival here:

Cape Town International Jazz Festival HHP

This article by Evan Milton first appeared in Rolling Stone SA on 12 April 2002.

“I make Motswako music. It means ‘a mixture’. You’ll hear hip-hop, jazz, funk, gospel, everything in the mix,” preaches HHP to the party people. Savvy sales pitch from a rapper riffing off the opportunity to tune jazz audiences into his hip-hop hybridity? Maybe. But the message in his medium struck a major chord at the 13th Cape Town International Jazz Festival.
Five stages. 40 artists. 34 000 fans. And a kaleidoscope of ‘jazz’ ranging from smooth, straight-ahead and old school standards to R&B, funk, African soul, hip-hop, electro-pop, house and beyond. It’s easy to feel alienated trying to navigate such a seemingly disjointed assemblage of genres. Even more tempting to want to get lost looking for an answer to ‘what is(n’t) jazz?’
But as HHP’s “Viva Motswako music, viva!” mantra suggested, the answer lies somewhere in between. In navigating the beat routes binding The Trio‘s hard-bop science, Jean Grae’s slam poetics and Zakes Bantwini’s kwaai-house hip shakers. Between Zahara’s acoustic soul spirituals and Nouvelle Vague’s titillating neo-new wave lounge makeovers. Or Dorothy Masuka’s vintage African blues and the Moreira Project’s funky smooth saxophone soars.
The festival started well for jazz purists. The intense, measured brilliance of bassist Herbie Tsoaeli‘s Friday evening set was a reminder of why South African jazz is a critical contributor to the global pantheon. Jazz began as a music of freedom, and has always carried that message here. In 2012, speaking of freedom means speaking of roots and traditions. It means pulling history into the present, interrogating the now without fear of the bondage of a single bass line or a simple call-and-response chorused cul-de-sac.
You might’ve been forgiven for leaving immediately to preserve such a precious sonic soul-memory. But that would mean missing pianist Andre Petersen’s superb quintet set where Reggie Washington played the late Basil Moses’ double-bass, while saxophonist Marcus Strickland channelled the spirit of Basil Coetzee’s tone and phrasing. Or Steve Dyer‘s explorations with a quintet of fierce young guns, including his pianist-son Bokani. Or Cuban composer-pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, or the pairing of Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez in multiple-layered conversation with the guitar of Benin’s Lionel Loueke. Or, of course, international grandmasters like bassist Ron Carter, trumpeter Donald Harrison and drummer Lenny White.
   Goin’ for Grammy…
Coming from such substance, how to engage with Grammy “gods” like Marcus Miller or Dave Koz? It’s all slick pastels, sharp suits and swooping TV camera cranes at the Kippies main arena. But there’s Miller, speed bass-ing through Miles Davis’ “Tutu” which, dammit, he recorded and played half the instruments on after Prince had said “no”! There’s Koz, who insisted on playing the free mid-week Greenmarket Square gig, because people that can’t afford tickets also deserve to hear jazz. So, yeah, it’s smooth and staged and bedeviled by rousing crescendoes. But it’s consummately executed, and the crowd lap it up: jiving, toasting with plastic cups, bopping on the cordoned-off corporate seats. This is jazz too, baby. But it’s jazz you’ve gotta dance to.
It’s a pity Ms. Lauryn Hill wasn’t taking notes. Her set may have been criticized as scattered, and the singer as “under the influence”. In truth, neither is accurate, although much of the crowd voted with their feet. Hill came across as an artist playing with a new band. Fair enough, the soul-hop siren has pretty much retired from public performance. But instead of spending the show flapping at her musicians and leaving the stage to lambast the sound engineer, Hill would have benefited by simply delivering her songs, and letting her undoubtedly talented band get on with the job.
For HHP, another chance to perform with a live band was enough. Boosted by a bass-quaking rhythm section his funk-rapped reading of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk On By” opened ears, while his medley of greatest Motswako hits lubricated hips. But it was his maskandi-rapped rewiring of The Tavares’ “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel” that actually had the Mother City audience square dancing in unison.
Jean Grae was in synch with HHP’s mash-up methodology. “Can we play some nu-jazz?” the New York based f-emcee asked. She riffed “good, bad, sad… some things you get over, some you don’t”. She sung the blues a la Sathima Bea Benjamin. A lean ‘n mean Willie Dixon style waltz opened her mother ‘n child reunion up. She rapped relationships. She slammed poetry. She spat pain. “That is a powerful song!” she chuckled, as the infamous South Easter literally brought the rafters down. She didn’t sweat it. She rocked out, stanzas sensitized to the glitch ‘n scratched big band swing ting.
   Swinging it…
Swing. The dance-floor DNA that drives Zakes Bantwini. His plan was to woo jazz-lovers with standards, then drop in some of his platinum-selling party starters. His super-scatted, funk-heavy rendition of “Take Five” with an eleven-piece big band did precisely that. Hardcore house heads had their ears opened, albeit subliminally, to a jazz classic, while jazz-heads found themselves wondering why the hell they hadn’t got down to some of Durban’s finest steamy rhythms before. By the time he romped through a rhythmic elemental rendition of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long”, the audience were singalong seduced.
As were the throngs who packed into the Kippies to catch Hugh Masekela’s all-star “Mama Afrika” tribute. The masses bounced to every note, utterly enthralled by special guests Thandiswa Mazwai, Zolani Mahola and Vusi Mahlasela. Did anyone care if the acoustics in the wings were terrible? Not with Thandiswa running Miriam’s voodoo down in a haunting version of “African Sunset”. And not until Zahara started channeling Busi Mhlongo and Margaret Singana on the Manenberg stage outside mid-way through Miriam’s Birthday Party. Shit. Any festival with multiple stages is going to have timetable clashes.
But why schedule 77-year-old living legend Dorothy Masuka to perform precisely when her teenage friend is being honoured? Organisers ESP Afrika should be lauded for including singer-activist veterans like Masuka, but the larger picture should have been considered. Her set was sublime, a multi-language presentation of songs and pithy recollections that underscored the deeply important musical heritage she embodies. The empty seats in the intimate Rosies auditorium cast a poignant resonance on the cheap plastic chair Masuka used to rest her injured hip between songs. This was made even worse by the fact that visiting diva Patti Austin played over her allotted time, forcing the African songstress to cut short her own set. And this practically midway through a solo by burning guitar southpaw Bheki Khoza!
This review of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2012 written as a joint three-way review by Evan Milton, Anton Marshall and Miles Keylock was written for Rolling Stone South Africa, and edited down from the words of three intrepid pairs of ears jostling independently between the five stages over the two nights. Read Evan Milton’s full review of part of the festival here:
This article by Evan Milton first appeared in Rolling STone SA on 12 April 2002.