You don’t really listen to Jill Scott during a live show – you feel it. With an on-stage back-line that included drums, bass, keyboards, trombone, trumpet and guitar, as well as her three male backing singers, “The Pipes”, the music penetrates hips, feet and heart even as it hits the ears. A capacity hall at the largest of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival’s five stages moved in sang in unison to her hits – and journeyed with her on the live arrangements of B-side gems.
Admittedly, by the time Scott took the stage last weekend, the crowd had been primed by other acts like Buena Vista Social Club, The Brand New Heavies and South Africa’s own Thandiswa Mazwai and a reunited Mafikizolo. Also, they’d been waiting for a year, after Scott’s scheduled headline slot at the 2012 festival was cancelled. To a grooving man and grinning woman, though, the smiles and clapping from the audience made it clear the audience felt it was worth the wait.
Fast forward to end of the show, where one night’s portion of the annual thirty-eight thousand attendees – so, safely call it upwards of 8 000 people – are clapping and whistling and demanding an encore after Miss Jill Scott finishes her show with a rousing rendition of a Spanish opera piece. The set was infused with soul and more than a touch of gospel; her backing singer brought in touches of Barbershop as much as the rich recent tradition of R’nB, and her backline evidence a groove that was drenched in funk. So what is Jill Scott doing headlining the biggest jazz festival in South Africa?
“Music can’t just sit idle in one place,” she explains the day after, to a rapt press-conference, smiling about the protea that’s been given to her as a gesture of appreciation. “I sing jazz but I love hip hop – all of it makes sense to me. Every song reflects a bit of my experience, but some are from the point of view of others. They need to be truthful and genuine so that I can relate to them – and that is what makes music real. So my songs, typically, they’re not what you’re thinking it is; it’s not coming from where you think it’s coming from. But that’s my business. A song is like making a new baby every time, with a different person,” she says, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “And I love all my children.”
“It was a blush fest…”
Scott’s jazz credentials – whatever that means in an ever-changing, ever-evolving genre – are rock-solid, though. Two of her Grammy Awards – for “Daydreamin‘” in 2008 and “Cross My Mind” in 2005 – were in the category “Best Urban/Alternative Performance” and her third was for “Best Traditional R&B Performance”. But that last (“God Bless The Child” in 2007) was a collaboration with George Benson and Al Jarreau, two of vocal jazz’s best loved innovators.
Scott lists that as her favourite collaboration ever. “It was a blush-fest,” she giggles. “There they were and I was thinking I should have a little tribe, one with each of them! George Benson comes into the (recording) booth with me, where I’m trying out different timings and he said, ‘Try this’. There he was, singing right in my face. I don’t know what happened, ‘cos I blacked out a little bit, but I guess it must have worked because we got that Grammy.”
Scott’s live show is powered, in large part, by a unwaveringly funky foundation laid down by her bassist and musical director, Thaddaeus Tribett, and drummer George Spanky McCurdy, who also plays with Lady Gaga and Kanye West. Two days before the Scott show, they were the highlight of a drumming workshop, and both said they loved Cape Town and hoped to return. Tribett is renowned as a bassist and musical director, but has an independent career as a vocalist and recording and performing gospel artist. He helped Scott recruit the members of the early Fat Back Taffy backing band, and is a co-pioneer of the “Philly sound”, a variation of soul music that borrows from funk and R’nB that emphasises vast arrangements, usually with sweeping horns. In other words: it’s big, and big on groove.
“When I listen to rock or I listen to blues and it feels like people have poured out their guts and their heart into the song and the music – that’s all about soul.”
Following her public press conference, Scott was interviewed for a performers’ documentary by Cape Town International Jazz Festival organisers ESP Afrika. She spoke of the path from journal entry or jotted note to stage show, talking about how the arrangements were about giving the songs space to breathe, and to live, but also ensuring a connection with a big audience. She said she loved the fact that she could see individual people in the Cape Town crowd, and pick up on a smile, or a wave or someone closing their eyes to listen to the music. She said that, even to a crowd of thousands, she likes to think of establishing an intimate connection with her listeners – although the luxury of small intimate shows is something she’s seldom able to indulge.
Also present at the Sunday press conference was globe-trotting South African star singer, Lira. “The most frustrating question that I get asked is, ‘What do you call your music?’,” said the SAMA, Metro and MOBO Award winner, and asked Scott how she described what she does. “I call it soul,” came the immediate answer. “When I listen to rock or I listen to blues and it feels like people have poured out their guts and their heart into the song and the music – that’s all about soul. I listen to pop; there’s Big Bang, this Korean pop group, and they’ve got soul too.” “I call my music Afrosoul,” Lira noted, at which Scott smiled and exclaimed, “That’s so cool!”
Off camera, Lira and Scott shared the dilemma of being an instantly recognisable diva. It seemed a truly earnest moment when the American star looked at her South African counterpart, who’d mentioned that she’d attended the Cape Town International Jazz Festival the night before as an audience member, and said, “It is so, so cool that you can do that, and her you are now, just walking around this hotel by yourself.” Moments earlier, though, in her documentary interview, Lira had said she’d had little chance to enjoy wandering the festival’s stages after agreeing to the first fan’s request for a photograph with her – and then being deluged by hundreds more pleas.
New Jill Scott albums: “Brown Baby Lullabies’“, Robert Glasper, Missy Elliot, 9th Wonder and more…
Scott’s future music plans involve various projects: “I’m working with (fellow CTIJF star) Robert Glasper and Derek Hodge, an incredible bassist from Philadelphia, and also John Roberts, who happens to be my son’s father. Then there’s ‘Brown Baby Lullabies‘, where the music has to be intelligent enough for babies and parents to listen to. The lyrics will primarily be affirmations – I hope it’s a record that everybody buys, and nobody hears because they are asleep. Then I’m doing a record with Neo and we’ve been talking with Missy Elliot – that’s with BJ The Chicago Kid and if you haven’t got his music yet, it’s great. Also with (repeat South African visitor) 9th Wonder, an incredible hip hop producer.”
This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2013/04/14.