Jazz singer, saxophonist and cajon-player Gavin Minter was one of the hits of the recent Cape Town International Jazz Festival, showcasing a new album with the cream of Cape Town’s jazz players. Here’s an archival interview with the jazz-man from 2008…
Outside, it’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in Cape Town’s afternoon, but inside the auditorium, it might as well be three a.m., with crooned jazz standards like Casablanca‘s “As Time Goes By”, the Bacharach classic “Close To You” and, of course, “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning”. One Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner, the superb and still under-supported Shannon Mowday, completes a smoky saxophone solo, and returns to her seat in the brass section of the assembled jazz orchestra. Marcus Wyatt – who created, composed and independently released “Language 12”, arguably South Africa’s finest jazz recording of 2007 – looks on as a second Young Artist winner, the equally superb Mark Fransman prepares for his piece. It’s a podium awash in talent – and they’re not even the highlights.
This is the Mother City Jazz Orchestra, put together by Gavin Minter and UCT music school professor Mike Campbell, to showcase Minter’s latest album “I’ll Be Seeing You”, which the singer recorded with the renowned Stockholm Jazz Orchestra during the latter’s brief visit to the city. The SJO are highly regarded internationally, being acclaimed as a big band who revel in the traditional line-up, but introduce more improvisation and expand their charts to a wider and more contemporary repertoire. “Without ever imagining it, this opportunity landed on my doorstep,” says Minter, pretty much still grinning from ear to ear after the concert. “It was a long process that started when I met Goran Strandberg when I was lecturing in Grahamstown four years ago. He wrote like Gil Evans and I asked him to write charts for me… Man, those charts are beautiful and every time he’d finish, I’d pay him to send me another one.”
Strandberg, also a pianist, was visiting South Africa with a quartet featuring Frederik Noren, trumpet-player and leader of the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra. “I ended up singing on of his charts, just singing the melody,” explains Minter, “We hung out and I booked him to play at the Green Dolphin. We went through the repertoire – I can sing a hell of a lot of standards – and he’s such a sensitive cat that he ended up selecting the ones that he felt worked for him.” Minter’s liner notes on “I’ll Be Seeing You” shed further light: “He wrote what I think are the most beautiful, lush, dark and dense arrangements”. Then, the full SJO themselves were booked for South African performances and Minter saw an opportunity to realise a big band dream. “Goran wrote string arrangement for the nine local string players, the SJO granted me two days in the SABC studios and we did the recording.”
For the CTIJF performances, Minter approached Campbell to put together the city’s top players – obviously a delight for Minter to sing with, but also a rare chance for an outing of this calibre in a local jazz performance climate which generally sees big band outings relegated to background corporate event stints or college recitals. “We knew who we wanted on the stand; musicians who were good readers and good players” says Minter. “I booked the rhythm section and together we worked out the brass. We had an A list and we got it, with the exception, maybe, of one or two guys who are playing in ‘Chicago’. Look at who we had: Shannon is just brilliant; cats like Graham Behr, Willie van Zyl… Dan Shout who’s now touring with Johnny Clegg; Mike Rossi. That big band was Cape Town’s finest in its own right, and the only person I wanted to bring in was Marcus on trumpet – for what he brings in an improvisational sense.”
Then, of course, there were the logistical problems. “People were saying that I looked so relaxed before I went on stage; I just said, ‘We’ve only had an hour and a half to rehearse, so I haven’t had a chance to get nervous’,” he jokes. The group had been scheduled to practice together from 11am until 2pm, time for playing through all the charts, and then doing a run of the set. “When we got there, they still needed to set up the room; there were no stand and they were still putting in microphone cables,” Minter recounts.
“We had two bomb drills and artists went outside to get coffee, and then weren’t allowed back in! I wanted to run the show through once, to get a feel for the tempo… Okay, there’s not that much change in tempo because I’m a balladeer, but to get a sense of it. I’d rehearsed separately with the rhythm section for songs like ‘Close To You’, so I knew I was okay with Mark (Fransman), Dave (Ledbetter) and Andrew (Lilley) and them, but for the rest – all we got to do was play the charts.” A further complication was that long-standing drum collaborator and Cape Town band veteran Kevin Gibson could not play the gig: “It was nerve-wracking! When Kev’s on stage, you just know everything will be great. But Heinrich (Goosen) is so diligent and he knew he was filling big shoes, so he learned the stuff more than well enough.”
Fast forward back to the after midnight time created by the orchestra, the songs, the arrangements and Minter’s singing. He announces that they’ll be doing “Love”, explaining that, as a child, it was the song he most requested from his mother, jazz singer Bobby Minter, because it spelled out “L-O-V-E”, and invites her to join him on stage. “I almost wasn’t going to do that,” he says, “I find it straining; I worry about that part too much because I’m too emotionally attached to it. Normally it’s too overwhelming, but on the day I felt quite light-hearted: Willie van Zyl had just worked his magic on ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’ and I was completely relaxed. It was an amazing moment.”
One Minter who didn’t make it onto stage was Gavin’s daughter, Jasmine, who’s childlike musings on God start the album version of “I’ll Be Seeing You”. “She still wants to know why I didn’t call her up,” he grins. “I’m not joking – she says I told her she could and, when I said I didn’t, she insists I did. I just say, ‘I’m sorry, Jasmine.’ She wanted sing on the song, and then also do the ‘Y-M-C-A’ type body movements to ‘Love’, standing next to me and her gran.” Might that have been the start of a new kind of jazz recital? He laughs, and quips, “I probably would have done it, except that the ‘E’ always looks funny.”
With rave reviews from the first local performance of his big band album, what’s in store for the project? Minter stops laughing, and replies soberly, “I’ve got all the usual gigs I do with singing and cajon (a Latin-American percussion box) and even some saxophone. For the big band, I’ve got two gigs coming up – in fact, I actually got one from the festival – but they are corporate ones, where there’s a bit of the feeling of, ‘It’s a bit like a Buble thing; he’ll be nice while we have starters’. I hope that we can get a platform broader than corporate gigs, and I hope the record company feels that the album warrants some work and takes their responsibility further with something like a TV campaign. I’m not going to worry myself to death about that, except to hope that they see the need to push it. It’s a good album – I know it’s my own that I’m talking about, but I think it’s beautifully recorded and has a beautiful sentiment – and I hope the record company can stir things up a bit.”
This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 13 April 2008. Find out more on Tonight.co.za.