South African Jazz Jewel Melanie Scholtz

Back from Norway, and recently featured at Spier’s inaugural harvest festival, singer Melanie Scholtz has completed work on a new album – and Mother City audiences stand a chance to glimpse a preview.

South African Jazz Jewel Melanie Scholtz

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 21/22  March 2009.

Ever a picture of poise and precision, jazz-based singer Melanie Scholtz is composed and graceful even as she enthuses about the her recent achievements, and what the year holds in store for her performing career. She’s been booked for the Splashy Fen festival (no mean feat for a jazz-based band), and for the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, and will be returning to Norway’s prestigious Varanger Jazz Festival, alongside artists of the ilk of Hiromi‘s Sonicbloom, Sissel, Supersilent and Marilyn Mazur. While there, she will also perform with Dixie, a Norwegian ensemble formed around her singing and the trumpet of Ole Jorn Myklebust. ‘It was so amazing last year,’ says Scholtz, ‘The theme was women and there I was, the first person on the banner because I was the only one from Africa, and next to people like Sissel, who’s basically Norway’s Celine Dion, the world-music artists Marily Mazur and, of course, Hiromi.’ Then, of course, there’s the new album, and the local concerts Scholtz plans to create around the material.

‘The album is finished now, but I can’t sell it here yet, or release copies to the media because we’re trying to get it signed for release in Europe,’ she explains. ‘The concert series that I plan is a way of trying to give people a chance to hear my live, and not just at the corporate gigs.’ Scholtz is in demand as a singer for corporate functions, with clients like Mercedes Benz and Clinique, and for events like the President’s Cup Golf Tournament (she sang the national anthem for Nelson Mandela), the ‘Woman of the Year Awards’ and the Quincy Jones / Nelson Mandela Blue Train Charity. ‘Of course it’s great to have corporate shows and to be able to put food on the table and pay the bills,’ she says, ‘But it’s also great to play for an audience that is there to listen to you.’
The new album was produced by Ole Jorn Myklebust (pronounce his first name ‘oola’), Norwegian trumpeter, vocalist, composer, arranger and producer, possibly best known locally for gigs with Cape Town International Jazz Festival find Bugge Wesseltoft, and renowned across Europe as part of Norwegian vocal star Mari Boine‘s band. Myklebust also creates music for television, theatre and documentaries, and first came to South Africa courtesy a Norwegian artist grant.’The grant allowed him to travel to a country he chose, and the rand is cheap so he used his krone to come here – and then there was a very funny way of meeting me,’ explains Scholtz. Myklebust had been referred to fellow Scandinavian now resident in Cape Town, the guitarist Gorm Helfjord (Golliwog, ‘Edge Of Wrong’, Sibongile Khumalo, Strataphonic). ‘Ole met him and said he had found this South African singer on MySpace, called Melanie Scholtz, and he was keen to work with her, and did Gorm know her… They were having a beer together and Gorm just said, ‘Yes, I know her. She is my wife’.’
With serendipity smiling, a meeting was set up and two collaborations ensued. In Norway, Scholtz played with Myklebust as part of Dixie, a band that started out in its eponymous idiom, but has moved on. ‘We have tuba, trombone, clarinet, trumpet, drums and guitar or banjo,’ she explains. ‘It’s a very different timbre and colour to what I do here, and we’re bringing more and more African music into it, that Myklebust has arranged. Like a version of ‘Lakutshon’Ilanga’, or a version of ‘Yakhal Inkomo’, arranged for a fifty-piece Russian choir, that we did at a festival. This year, we’re going to add ‘Malaika’ and ‘Ntshilo Ntshilo’. What’s amazing is how well the music is received in Norway.’
Myklebust also suggested that Boine do a recording in South Africa – followers of world music will be intrigued to learn that this recording, done at Sunset Studios outside Stellenbosch, also features African neo-traditional multi-instrumentalist Dizu Plaatjies (Ibuyambo, ‘African Kings’) and ‘Queen of Xhosa music’, Madosini (maker and player of uhadi and umrhubhe).'”Ole stayed behind and we also recorded at Sunset, with (pianist) Andrew Lilley, (double-bassist) Charles Lazar, (guitarist) Gorm and (drummer) Jonno Sweetman,’ says Scholtz noting that her new material “has actually gone back to a kind of old school jazz, done in a bit of an Amy Winehouse.’ A committed individualist, Scholtz’s album also features a rare and curious treat. ‘There’s an old Norwegian Christmas song that was translated into Xhosa for me, and features a visiting Norwegian bass player, who asked if he could crash at our place. He’s Jo Fougner Skaansar (pronounce it ‘yoo’), being hailed all over Norway as the new kid on the block to watch. The song is just bass and voice…’
Sadly, South Africans will have to wait to hear the album in recorded form as the singer hammers out the details of a distribution deal – hence the series of concerts Scholtz plans. ‘I think it’s very easy in South Africa to get caught into thinking that to make money we need to please a certain part of the market, but just by being yourself, and really working at it, presenting things with a lot of conviction, you can re-attract an old audience and attract a new and younger one. Internationally, people like Michael Buble and Diana Krall have made it easier for younger audiences to get to the music, but I think young South African jazz musicians need to make it easier for audiences here to find the music more acceptable and more palatable. Also, I think that we have not explored our venues in Cape Town: we’re looking at venues like the New Space Theatre, the Old Slave Church and the District Six Museum – that’s the kind of thing we will be looking at. Everyone that lives in South Africa filters and processes being African in a completely different way,’ she says. ‘There are a lot of albums coming out now that are so special, because we are processing our Africanness. That’s what we need to treasure and to encourage and to keep doing.’
Melanie Scholtz’s pre-concert series launched last night at Beach Road Studios, featuring her recording trio, and special guest Jason Reolon. Find out more about the series on MelanieScholtz.com, and also see MySpace.com/OleJorn and MySpace.com/GormHelfjord.
This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 21/22  March 2009. Find out more on Tonight.co.za.
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