11/18/06

Sounds of South Africa

This concert was a mixed-bag presentation designed to encourage tourism to South Africa and raise money to bring more South African musicians to the States.

The opening acts—dance troupe Juxtapower, followed by singer Khanyo backed by the Soweto String Quartet—provided little of interest to a jazz audience. The musicians stood onstage before each number waiting for the click track to cue them to begin their sawing to the slick, Disney-style taped soundtrack behind them. Repertoire included “Amazing Grace” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

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Hugh Masekela

Such an opener, however, was quickly forgotten once Abdullah Ibrahim was introduced. The 72-year-old South African pianist and composer came onstage alone to reverent applause, dressed simply but elegantly in black.

Unaccompanied, Ibrahim played a seamless suite of songs that lasted for approximately a half-hour, the most clearly recognizable and lingering melody being Ibrahim’s “Blue Bolero.” The material drifted from classical-sounding pieces into brightly exclamatory jazz abstractions that recalled Monk and Ellington. The hypnotic in-and-out of themes and improvisation built up to moments of dramatic excitement. Throughout, the impressionistic music was anchored by Ibrahim’s constantly moving left hand, at times creating ascending and descending chord progressions, swinging riffs and percussive bursts.

Musically, Ibrahim’s stunning performance was the clear highlight of the evening. The press release for the concert had misleadingly suggested there would be a reunion of Ibrahim and headliner, flugelhornist Hugh Masekela. The musicians have followed remarkably different musical paths since they played together in the late 1950s and early 1960s (in the Jazz Epistles), so the idea of them playing together was intriguing. However, any reunion that took place occurred backstage.

After the intermission, honorary patron Dr. Harry Belafonte was introduced and spoke of his long relationship with South Africa and the musicians it has produced. He gave a warm account of the many years of his friendship with “Hughie” Masekela, going back to the early 1960s when Belafonte helped Masekela attend the Manhattan School of Music.

When Masekela, 67, finally took the stage, it was obvious from the greeting he received that he was the man the audience was here to see. He was backed by a six-piece band that included Late Show with David Letterman drummer Anton Fig, alto saxophonist Morris Goldberg (leader of the band Ojoyo) and bassist Bakithi Kumalo, best known for participating on Paul Simon’s album Graceland.

Masekela and Goldberg stood out front sharing leads, harmonizing, backing each other up with tambourine and even doing dance steps. While this was decidedly more world music than jazz, the light melodicism of both Masekela and Goldberg recalled West Coast players like Chet Baker and Paul Desmond.

For the audience, the high point was clearly Masekela’s big hit, “Grazing in the Grass,” though another instrumental number played early in the set had the two horn players trading fours and was equally enjoyable. The train song, “Stimela,” for which Masekela beat a cowbell, sang, spoke and made train sounds was another crowd-pleaser. Masekela is a gifted entertainer whose playing, singing, percussion work and dancing created an atmosphere of fun tempered by reflection upon the hard lives faced by many in South Africa even after the end of Apartheid.

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