Carlo Mombelli: ‘Stories’ from the master composer & bassist

Composer, improviser, bassist, WITS lecturer and “Lab of Learning” founder Carlo Mombelli plays a rare Cape Town gig to launch a new album, recorded during an artist residency in Switzerland, and now interpreted and presented by his South African quartet.

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” on 2014/05/18.

Carlo Mombelli with Kyle Shepherd and Kesivan Naidoo, photo by David Donde

Carlo Mombelli with Kyle Shepherd and Kesivan Naidoo, photo by David Donde

A wide range of music lovers look forward to Carlo Mombelli’s live shows, but there’s one particular group that is always neatly represented: other musicians. It says something that this slight and apparently unassuming man commands such reverence and loyalty – especially since he’s often at pains to pull apart any of the ivory towers that might surround “proper” or “educated” music. His new album, “Stories”, proves the point. It was recorded in 2013 in Basel, Switzerland with an ensemble that comprised an established music conservatory chamber quartet – and the vocal contribution of self-taught Eshowe-born Zulu vocalist, Mbuso Khoza.

“My compositions flow out of happenings in my life, or from improvisations when I am playing, and that’s where ‘Stories’ came from,” says Mombelli. “For the song, ‘The Hunter’, I played a groove – not a simple bass groove – and Mbuso said, ‘This song, it sounds like a hunting song.’ I said, ‘You take it: take over and you feel it like it is,’ and that’s how one of the stories on ‘Stories’ got there.”

The album had another genesis: in an artists residency programmed spearheaded by Dr Veit Arlt, a historian and author who heads up the Centre for African Studies at the University of Basel and has been organising concerts for South African musicians at Basel’s celebrated Bird’s Eye club for over a decade (these have included jazz names like the late Zim Ngqawana, Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Bokani Dyer, Kyle Shepherd, Marcus Wyatt and Cape Town musical stalwart Hilton Schilder, amongst others).

“My face was all over the city with all the gigs. I was famous in Switzerland for a month.”

– Carlo Mombelli about his residency in Basel, courtesy Dr Veit Arlt

“My residency was intensive!” Mombellis exclaims, “I worked with students at the jazz school – every week we did two concerts with them in the jazz club, presenting new music. At the same time I was playing with a professional band; playing all the galleries and venues. Someone made a joke that for my face was all over the city with all the gigs. I was famous in Switzerland for a month.”

Stories” is Mombelli’s most personally revealing album yet. Consider the piece, “The Road Past Nieu Bethesda”: “My daughter was involved in a serious car accident there. I am so grateful that she came out alright. But the friend sitting next to her was killed. It was a very, very traumatic thing. In the song, the bass holds the car, driving – the melody and the other parts of the song are all the things that have happened.”

From happier influences come “For Mrs Loveday” – triggered by Mombelli’s first piano teacher who “was mad about baroque music and it’s inspired by that, and maybe a little bit of Bach” – and “Motian The Explorer” – an homage to drummer and composer Paul Motian, drawing on earlier musical sketches Mombelli penned.

In Switzerland, Mombelli recorded “Stories” with Daniel Pezzotti (cello), Adrian Mears (trombone) and Dejan Terzic (drums) alongside his bass. In South Africa, the music is interpreted by pianist Kyle Shepherd and drummer Kesivan Naidoo – and, of course, Khoza’s voice. “If you find musicians that have been inspired by similar artists, then you kind of understand one another’s headspace,” says Mombelli. “Kesivan is also inspired by Paul Motian, so there’s a shared sound when we play. Kyle approaches music from a very spiritual place – you close your eyes and you can feel where it’s coming from. We all play with colours, almost like painting a soundtrack with the music. Mbuso is the  odd one out, because he doesn’t come from that type of music, but he also sings with colours. He learned his music in the mountains of KwaZulu-Natal, herding cattle. As a little boy, from the age of five, he was using clicks and sounds and each animal understood their sounds. His music is very, very raw, Most of our concert is improvising around this, and the combination of the two approaches is very beautiful.”

The song “In Between I’ll Eat Dark Chocolate” also stems from an interesting story: “There was quite a situation,” laughs Mombelli, but it’s an uncomfortable laugh. “I don’t want to talk too much about it, but I was involved in a concert and there were two religious groups – this one trying to use me in this way; that one trying to use me in another way. I had to pull out of it. It was disturbing, but it is easy to get sucked into these things. You have to sit back and watch it happen, and see what a situation is really ab out.”

“I love teaching, and I am very anti the ‘jazz police’, with that attitude of ‘If you’re not cracking it, then get off the stage.”

– Carlo Mombelli

Mombelli holds a teaching post at the University of Witwatersrand  and, in 2011, published a book of bass teachings, “Mombelli’s Intergalactic Bass Program – Vol.1” (Real African / Hal Leonard). He also runs the weekly “Lab of Learning” jam sessions at Johannesburg’s Bassline venue: each session starts with a performance involving Mombelli and then the floor is available, and proudly proclaims: “open to all styles of music – amateur and professional students welcome”.

“‘Lab of Learning” might have a ten year old kid who’s learning to play drums and I will put them with professional musicians,” Mombelli explains. “I love teaching, and I am very anti the ‘jazz police’, with that attitude of ‘If you’re not cracking it, then get off the stage.” I want everybody to walk away with an experience, and that’s the same attitude i bring to my class at Wits – I’m open to showing anything that I have figured out to anyone, and I want them to have an experience of music, not just to learn about it.”

The live showing of “Stories” is a rare treat for Cape Town music lovers, both “amateur” and “professional”. Expect “music moves between free chamber improvised music, acoustic and electronic, under the melodies and chants that are rooted in the sounds of Africa… sometimes explained as film music played live.”

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” on 2014/05/18.

Carlo Mombelli launches “Stories” for two nights only at the UCT College of Music on Friday 23 and Saturday 24 May (8.30pm, University of Cape Town, off Main Road, Rondebosch (park as though for the Baxter Theatre; College of Music is behind and up the hill from the theatre, towards the university main campus, bookings 083 3200714, tickets R100 (R50 for students and pensioners); “Stories” on sale at R150). More at CarloMombelli.com or at http://j.mp/Mombelli.

Carlo Mombelli with Kesivan Naidoo, Mbuso Khoza and Kyle Shephered

Carlo Mombelli with Kesivan Naidoo, Mbuso Khoza and Kyle Shephered

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One response to “Carlo Mombelli: ‘Stories’ from the master composer & bassist

  1. Pingback: Carlo Mombelli: ‘Stories’ From the Master Composer and Bassist - WSOA Music·

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