Young Cape Town saxophonist Ethan Smith is the latest winner of the Fine Music Radio Pick ‘n Pay Award for Jazz – the perfect farewell present as he prepares to further his musical studies in Norway.
This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 01/02 August 2009.
Tuesday night saw the fifth Pick ‘n Pay / Fine Music Radio Music Awards, with the finalists competing for the grand prizes of R20 000 each in the categories of Jazz and Classical Music. Following an exceptionally high standard of entries in 2009, the field had been narrowed to UCT final-year composition student Mandla Mlangeni, jazz vocal UCT student Georgina Kareklas and alto saxophonist Ethan Smith, from Elsies River, who was the eventual winner. The Classical prize was won by Cherilee Adams playing marimba and xylophone and performing “Gigue” from “Violin Partita No.2” by Bach and the concertino for xylophone and orchestra by Toshiro Mayuzumi. Runners-up were tenor Sonnyboy Dladla and pianist Bradley Burgess playing Rachmanonov and Chopin.
At just twenty years old, and only in his second year of studying after matriculating at Settlers High, Ethan Smith is a shining talent on the saxophone, although he came to the instrument relatively recently. “I started out playing piano, and I only got the saxophone in Grade 10,” he says somewhat nervously, after confessing that this is his first interview. “I definitely found my instrument when I picked up that sax – my piano was okay, but I was progressing slowly until my music teacher in Grade 9 suggested that I should switch to a single-line instrument.”
It was sage advice and a wise choice – the judges at the annual competition were particularly impressed by the expressiveness of his heartfelt performance, and the audience is described as “spellbound with each lingering note”. This was all the more impressive since Smith’s two pieces in the allotted fifteen-minute slot, “East” and “Absence of Solitude”, were his own compositions. Smith is quick to credit his school environment and teachers: “Settlers has a very vibrant music department and it was a very good place to get to play and to hone my skills. I played in the school jazz band and the school orchestra, playing standards and some South African standards, and they gave me a lot of space and encouraged me to solo a lot. That was where I got my grounding – that, and spending a lot of time with Kyle Shepherd.”
Himself barely out of high school, Shepherd has been both an inspiration and something of a mentor to Smith. “I met him when I was in Grade 9 and he was in Grade 11,” says Smith, “I could say he was my main influence because he introduced me to jazz. I used to go to his house and hear him playing me things. Kyle always preached Abdullah Ibrahim, although at that time he was also into a lot of straight-ahead American jazz, like Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, and these things he passed onto me.”
It was not all plain sailing, though, especially after Smith switched to saxophone. Subsequent to matriculating, Smith played with Shepherd in a quartet setting and, while Shepherd is best known as a pianist and composer, he is no mean saxophonist. How was it for the young Smith to be performing alongside an accomplished reed-man? “When I was at school – Kyle was out of school at the time – and Kyle had his horn and I’d go to his house and he’d be playing… Joh! Man, I used to feel so despondent that he could play better than I could at the time, with him being a piano player. But that insecurity has subsided – I’m definitely a lot more comfortable, and I have my sound.”
Although still developing, Smith has achieved a clarity of voice which impressed the Pick ‘n Pay / Fine Music Radio judges. He mentions as his influences South African masters such as Zim Ngqawana, Robbie Jansen, Abdullah Ibrahim, Buddy Wells and, of course, Kyle Shepherd, and cites a keen interest in the M-BASE pioneers – Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Jason Moran and Cassandra Wilson. He also smiles about having come a long way since his first “serious” jazz listen.
“I remember one day when I bought my first John Coltrane CD,” he says. “At that time it was just a name to me; I didn’t know his impact on jazz – all I knew was that people said he was a good saxophonist. I asked my dad to get it, and then I took it home and listened to him for the first time. I really didn’t understand; I didn’t know what was going on in the music. But, then, the more that I started investigating; the more I started finding out about jazz and music and people like Coltrane, the more it all started making sense.”
“The music is what kept me going, especially the improvisational aspect,” he says. “When I started improvising, that’s when it unlocked this ball for me, opening this place where there is a continuous and perpetual space, with all these corners to explore. Also, when I started listening to this music, again I found that with my new instrument, the saxophone, I learned it quickly and I got a sound quickly. When I started improvising, I found so much joy in that. Now, as a composer, there is an enormous joy that comes from creating one’s own music. Like creating anything, there is an innate connection to it; it’s like your baby, in a sense. With playing, I really love the energy; especially playing my own tunes – that kind of emotion and that energy. I don’t really gig that much, so often I just play to myself and, many times, that is more than enough.”
Smith is now in his second year of musical studies at the UCT and is one of only two South African students selected to participate in an exchange programme between the Norwegian Academy of Music and the South African College of Music. When he leaves for Norway later this month, it will be his first overseas trip. “In fact,” says Smith, almost as though catching himself with the realisation, “I haven’t been on a ‘plane before! Things are happening in huge leaps here. I’m scared but excited at the same time: scared of the whole unknown thing, and a bit in the dark about travelling and being away from home for so long, but I’m definitely looking forward to what there is to learn.”
Although still shy of his twenty-first birthday, Smith evidences a poise and maturity which belies his age. He feels, he says, that the trip to Norway has come at the right time. “I have no attachments and few commitments and responsibilities, and it is at the right time for the space that I am in spiritually,” he says. “As a person, I’m on a journey seeking growth and evolution. This is a very good catalyst for that and for personal growth. Naturally, that will filter into my music and into every aspect of my life.”
FineART producer Theo Lawrence hosts Ethan Smith, playing a farewell concert featuring Kyle Shepherd (grand piano), Dylan Tabisher (double bass) and Warren Adams (drums) on Saturday 8 August at the UCT College of Music (Room C7, Rondebosch,7.30pm, R50; details 082 4494653). More on MySpace.com/EFSmith, Facebook and YouTube.
Photo by Beryl Eichenberger.
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