04/02/07

Cape Town International Jazz Festival

Strolling the teeming corridors of the spiffy Convention Center, home to the Cape Town International Jazz Festival’s 8th running, one is heartened by South Africa’s democracy-era mosaic of humanity—and the fact there are arguably more black enthusiasts here than you’ll find at any jazz festival on the planet. The successful lineup of South African artists leavened with other Motherland artists and samplings from Europe and the U.S. lends to the rainbow from an onstage perspective as well.

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John Abbott

Jack DeJohnette

Good navigational skills are in order as one surfs the venues of “Africa’s Grandest Gathering” in search of sound rewards. With the exception of the Rosie’s stage, a spacious concert hall that requires an additional admission (more on that later), the remaining four stages are general admission. In some cases if your arrival timing is a bit off, your consolation vantage point will be the big video screens that accommodated the three larger spaces.

Fresh off their sparkling new record, Joe Sample and Randy Crawford were hotly anticipated. The South Africa ensemble Vivid Afrika, including the intrepid saxophonist McCoy Mrubata, oud-guitar man Greg Georgiades, facile tabla player Ashish Joshi and trombonist-vocalist Siya Makuzeni—a diminutive woman who handled the slide with aplomb and sang quite effectively—proved too compelling to ditch Rosie's early enough to hustle downstairs in time to secure a coveted space in the humungous Kippie’s room for Randy & Joe. After a few moments of push and squeeze in the hallway, braving the reported 8,000 in the room was sheer folly, so it was back to Rosie’s for the Geri Allen Trio, which delighted the old schoolers by closing with Bird’s “Ah-Leu-Cha.”

The boundaries of CTIJF jazz were expanded for doses of R&B, the ancient harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo (again in cram-packed Kippie’s), hits of funk and the popular South African toaster Hip Hop Pantsula. I heard some fairly mild grumbling about this supposed dilution from a few jazz diehards at the preceding day’s South Atlantic Jazz Music Conference, but the skillful mix of artists and the jazz core of the festival was an impressive juggling act by the producing espAfrika organization.

Rosie’s was ground zero for the connoisseurs among the 30,000 who packed the Convention Center over the two-day weekend. Earlier incarnations of the festival forced organizers to exact an additional tariff to enjoy the Rosie’s acts due to audience members’ proclivity for camping out in this most comfortable of the five stages. The result is sub-capacity audiences and an oasis from the masses who consistently and good-naturedly jammed Kippie’s and the adjacent Bassline; there Hip Hop Pantsula’s set was so packed that some revelers became a bit chippy until his set was shifted to the more expansive Manenberg outdoor stage. Each stage is dedicated to either a late South African jazz master or a famous music hotspot. The most intimate venue was the compact hall named for the late keyboardist Moses Molelekwa, where the discovery was South African guitarist Bheki Khoza’s tight unit.

Rosie’s alternated South African jazz bands, including the infectious ensemble of keyboardist Themba Mkhize, and longtime South Africa resident Darius Brubeck—whose SAPO/UKZN Rolling Reunion Band skewered GWB by updating Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” with a slightly Middle Eastern motif—with touring artists, including Allen, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Lee Konitz, the potent band Khaya Mahlangu led by sturdy tenor man Ngenekhaya Mahlangu, and closing Saturday with a Jack DeJohnette (pictured)-Danilo Perez-Jerome Harris trio.

Better DeJohnette’s new project, Intercontinental, had played Rosie’s than the expansive asphalt Manenberg plaza, where their music’s inherent subtleties were challenged; otherwise it was one of the festival’s transcendent moments. It’s called Intercontinental because the band features musicians hailing from four continents: pianist Danilo Perez (Panama), trumpeter Byron Wallen and saxophonist Jason Yarde (U.K.), homeboys DeJohnette and bassist Jerome Harris, and the band’s inspirational force, South African vocalist Sibongile Khumalo.

Ms. Khumalo’s rich, multi-octave, operatically resilient voice and celestial tonalities in this special context even coaxed South Africa president Thabo Mbeki out for a night at the festival. Sibongile (pronounced “See-Bon-Geelay”) delivered equal parts thrilling yodel and soaring tonalities to the program of largely band originals. Her own “Little Girl” skillfully cut like a scythe through the R&B bombast of Leela James’ sound bleed from the adjacent Kippie’s. The masses wordlessly accompanied sister Khumalo on Abdullah Ibrahim’s anthem “Royal Blue,” and soared along with Yarde’s blistering alto. Khumalo’s musical rapport with Perez was evident throughout Intercontinental’s performance.

In our earlier interview at the Cape Sun Hotel, Ms. Khumalo spoke of her cautious approach to the prospect of DeJohnette’s project in terms that mirrored the lingering self-doubt of black SA artists as the brutal apartheid era slowly recedes in the distance. “The constraints that I was referring to have to do with how apartheid manifested in the black person’s mind in this country: that sense of self-loathing and just lack of self-esteem—‘Can I actually do this? Am I good enough to do this? Why are they asking me?’—that kind of thing,” the warm-hearted singer said. “Jack DeJohnette says he wants to work with me—‘Really, are you sure?’—and it takes a while to get out of that and say ‘Oh yes, right...there’s something I’m saying here that makes sense to somebody....’”

Jack first heard Sibongile in 2001 in the U.K. and was struck immediately by her gifts. They plotted but like all good ideas it took a while to germinate. “Three months ago I get this call from Jack DeJohnette and I said ‘Alright, this is happening....’ I had to start thinking about this; the conversations happened and we shared the music, sending each other discs and songs, and I started listening and I was thinking to myself ‘I knew Jack DeJohnette was deep, but this is DEEP, how am I going to deal with this stuff?’” Deal with it she did, with enormous aplomb, and one can only hope there’s life after Cape Town for Intercontinental.

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