World-music influenced jazz trio Offshore are relocating from the Garden Route to Cape Town, a treat for both local audiences and musicians.
This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 23-24/10 January 2010.
Offshore started in 2004 on the Garden Route when pianist and keyboard player Martin Wolfaardt “downscaled” from Gauteng corporate life and joined forces with double-bassist Paul Gibbings, an avid mountain biker at sponsorship level for the daunting Cape Epic race, and drummer Jonno Sweetman, who spends almost as much time surfing waves as he does practising music. The trio clocked up kilometres and kilometres shuttling between homes and gigs in Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and George, and working with whomever they could, like singer Wendy Oldfield and Xolani Faku, nephew of trumpeter Feya Faku at jazz festivals in Hankey and Grahamstown. In 2007 they released a debut album, “Too Many Names”, recorded at the Garden Route’s Peace Of Eden Studios (responsible for Steve Newman, Guy Buttery and The Lancaster Band amongst others).
When Gauteng-based guitarist and jazz lecturer Jonathan Crossley chanced upon the group playing in a Knysna shopping mall, he snapped them up to record and tour with his superb funk-driven project, The Jonathan Crossley Electric Band which, inexplicably, remains unreleased in South Africa. Collaborations followed with local luminaries like trumpeter Marcus Wyatt and saxophonist Buddy Wells, and with US Thelonius Monk-influenced guitarist Gary Wittner and US saxophonist and ethnomusicology PhD Sam Thomas. Building on this growing national profile, the trio recorded a follow-up album, “Incidents” (released in Cape Town in late 2009 at Beach Road Studios) and toured to Grahamstown, where they performed to standing ovations. 2010 sees Jonno firmly ensconced as a resident Cape Town drummer and Paul recently relocated to Stellenbosch, with Martin scheduled to make frequent visits to the town that welcomed the trio at the 2008 Cape Town International Jazz Festival.
“There’s effectively enough gravitational pull in Cape Town to draw me in,” says Martin by phone from Plettenberg Bay. “Offshore is two-thirds there now, and I’ve been doing quite a bit of work with Wendy Oldfield out here – we’re resurrecting a project called Gaia, which we might tour. It’s a sort of prog-pop, you call it, with touches of jazz. I’ve arranged my life with good reasons to be in Cape Town and to really give the music of Offshore a chance. We played Grahamstown last year to packed houses and the spirit moved, man! We got a standing ovation, and it’s about an incremental process, like an amazing interview that Shado Twala did with me on HeartFM. It’s slowly getting out there, but Offshore is still a hidden thing. We’re undercover, really, but that’s fine by us – we’d rather gradually reach listeners by playing good concerts than over-hype ourselves.”
Jonno was the first to drift south, relocating to Cape Town almost two years ago. “It was a good move; it’s taken my drumming to the next level,” he says. “I started in Offshore coming from almost a world-music angle, and re-interpreting stuff that people knew. Now I’ve been getting more and more involved in playing jazz standards and really drumming out with other bands. Playing with Kyle Shepherd means I’ve been really getting into goema, and the Cape style is opening up. A highlight is recording and playing with Melanie Scholtz, and with her being Standard Bank Young Artist (Jazz) this year, we’ve been rehearsing quite a bit.”
Jonno’s move was a shot in the arm for Cape Town jazz projects which had, previously, suffered for lack of appropriate drummers. Swing vocalist Haydn Gardner is looking to use Offshore as the rhythm section for an album, and Jonno’s played a number of gigs backing him, not least the “SWING!” evenings at Albert Hall, bringing the 1920s back to Woodstock. He was snapped up for gigs by scene stalwart Dave Ledbetter and new firebrand Rus Nerwich, and deps for Mark Fransman shows when regular drummer Heinrich Goosen has clashes in his busy timetable. He also stepped into the slot vacated by Kesivan Naidoo in Restless Natives, the long standing Tuesday resident jazz outfit at Asoka which, more or less single-handedly, re-introduced bop-influenced jazz to a new crew of City Bowl hipsters – and there are offshoots from that band, like bassist Shane Cooper‘s art-meets-music project, Darkroom Collective.
Next to relocate was Paul, who transported his last car-load of belongings in early January. “There is not real master plan,” he smiles from his new home in Stellenbosch. “I just threw myself out there after a lot happened in my life. My dad had died, and I met a girl from Stellenbosch, so there was a bit of a push. But it was haunting me, this thing about stepping out into music down here in Cape Town and after Rus (Nerwich) organised me a New Year’s gig, I thought that was perfect. It was a show with Haydn and Alvin Dyers, and to do my first gig here with a Cape guitar legend like Alvin was great. I wanted to try and push my playing, and I was quite intimidated, coming from the Garden Route to the big city, but the guys have been really good to me here; really accommodating. It’s been a big learning curve for me, musically, but in a lot of areas in my life. Now we’re looking to push Offshore; to be more spontaneous and creative and involved in the music scene here. We’ll be more in the light here, and it’s good to get the critics and to let everyone see what our playing is about.”
Offshore launched their Garden Route recorded album, “Incident”, at Cape Town’s Beach Road Studio auditorium in October 2009, sharing the stage with SAMA-nominees Babu and this is their first public Cape Town gig since then. “Expect material from the album and a whole new dynamic with Lee (Thomson) on trumpet, and also some new material,” says Martin. “They’re all so busy, but I’ve somehow managed to smuggle into the guys minds, some asymmetrical time signature stuff that is great fun to play.” He grins and admits to listening to a lot of pieces by experimental bassist and composer Avishai Cohen, calling it “world music meets neo-classical meets jazz, with lots of space for improvisation”. Jonno cites the harmonics of the near-philosophical intensity of saxophonist Mark Turner as a current favourite, along with an exploration of material by the late South African compositional legend Bheki Mseleku. “It’s about the beauty and balance between structural and open music,” concludes Martin. “That’s our ideal, to find the balance between planned sections, and improvisational sections, and we might throw in a standard or two. Or a not-so-standard standard.”
Offshore play The Rainbow Room “Headset Sessions” with guests Buddy Wells (saxophone) and Lee Thomson (trumpet, flugelhorn) on Monday 25 January (Mandela Rhodes Place, Church St (parking off Burg St), 021-4221428, R50; booking advised, details TheRainbowExperience.co.za). More on OffshoreJazz.co.za and MySpace.Com/OffshoreJazz. “Incidents” is available at discerning music shops, as is “Too Many Names”, which can also be found digitally at RhythmMusicStore.com. The Jonathan Crossley Electric Band is only available at CDBaby.com. See WhatsOn.co.za and theArgus “Tonight” for updated gig listings on these artists and projects.