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Cape Town International Jazz Festival

Cape Town International Convention Centre, Cape Town, South Africa, April 3-4, 2009

Hugh Masekela
Hugh Masekela
Robert Glasper

Fifteen years after the end of apartheid, Cape Town, South Africa continues to operate in dichotomies. Cosmopolitan waterfront property flush with shops, swank hotels and luxury car dealerships provides posh distractions from miles of scrapheap townships; the coarse mountain landscapes, between which lie some of the best wineries on the planet, are indescribably beautiful distractions from the myriad problems affecting the poor communities-the AIDS pandemic, crime and rampant unemployment, to name a few. A dual economy furnishes tourists-even Americans-with an exceedingly generous exchange rate.

The 10th anniversary edition of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, held April 3 and 4 in and around the impressive Cape Town International Convention Centre, also worked in stark contrasts. Moments of hearty swing and heady ensemble cohesion juxtaposed pop and some unabashedly smooth fare falling under the umbrella of “African jazz,” a term that uses the “j” word to connote specific cross-pollinations like marabi, mbaqanga and kwela (à la “Latin jazz”) but is more often a catchall. At a press conference, the genre’s Grand Poobah, Hugh Masekela, argued that “South African music” might be a more appropriate locution. (“The name ‘jazz’ has been used loosely, and has been imposed on every kind of music that is not classical or religious,” he said.) At that same press conference series, a festival producer offered a sentiment to make Stanley Crouch brawl: “Jazz crossed the Atlantic and now it’s coming back to where it started.” As one American colleague pithily observed, where’s Wynton when you need him?

But nomenclature be damned: This fest was fun, organized, well produced and solvent-a sellout for the fifth consecutive year, in fact. (Going against the grain of worldwide economics, organizers plan to expand and sponsor fests throughout the continent. Their reasoning? “When things are tough, we party.”) The Convention Centre itself impressed, a spotless if sterile multi-venue complex with areas designated for close listening, goodtime revelry and everything in between. It even included space for a photo exhibit on Miriam Makeba, the vocal matriarch who passed in 2008.

Where many festivals promise new discoveries, Cape Town offered an alternate universe, with edges sharp (the flautist Magic Malik, who worked in cryptic, cinematic Eurojazz cool) and dull (the Stylistics, whose performance evoked evening PBS programming). The swift jaunts between theaters and outdoor stages exacerbated the urge to check everything out, and gave even the indoor theaters a constant feel of coming and going-fine if you’re the one doing the venue-hopping, not so fine if you’re looking to achieve a Village Vanguard level of meditation.

The most party hearty area was Bassline, an outdoor setup featuring hip-hop and electronic acts that eschewed hip-pop and crunk in favor of a transcultural scope, jazzlike suavity and melds of turntables, samplers and live instrumentation. Pete Philly, an Amsterdam-raised MC who embodied confidence and intelligence, worked alongside Perquisite, a beatmaker who doubles on cello. Jazzers-turned-electronica-duo Goldfish combined house urgency with live sax and upright bass. Saxophonist Rus Nerwich, a South African Jew whose body of work includes jazz interpretations of Holocaust-era ghetto folksongs, presented a genre-swapping large ensemble called the Collective Imagination. Mos Def, aided by Robert Glasper’s Experiment band, recasted John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” mantra for a heretical extended chant: “A love supreme/A sound supreme/A vibe supreme.” On the other outdoor stage, live funk was delivered in varying degrees of tenacity, with Shakatak, who are as mawkish as they were in 1985, and Incognito’s surprisingly gutsy live sound.

All those contemporary fusions seemed forced compared to the Glasper Experiment’s own set on the more serious-minded Molelelekwa stage, where the Blue Note keyboardist and his NYC comrades turned DJ culture into a live-band affair, adding jazz-earned chops and fusion’s electricity and expansiveness. After a delayed start and some messy sound out of the gate, a lengthy first jam interpolated Chick Corea’s “Paint the World” and Herbie’s “Butterfly” after twisting shades of the Headhunters and Weather Report into “Fuck the Police”-not the N.W.A. tune (that one uses “tha”), but the single by late producer J Dilla, a lodestar figure for Glasper and hip-hop’s crate-digging left-field. Filling out the band was Chris Dave, a drummer who divided his sound among Tony Williams, Buddy Miles and hip-hop’s boom-bap; Casey Benjamin, a saxophonist who also played keytar and vocoder (too much by set’s end); and electric bassist Derrick Hodge.

In addition to Glasper, the producers gathered a solid cross-section of American talent, even if another A-list working band (or two) wouldn’t have hurt. Dianne Reeves, who might be scientifically incapable of anything less than an august performance, commanded a packed house at the college-theater-sized Rosies venue, moving from a faithful rendition of “Solitude” through a cogent, virtuosic revision of “A Child Is Born” and the convincing folk-blues “Today Will Be a Good Day.” On the very funky “Testify,” the dazzlingly versatile guitarist Romero Lubambo proved he’s internalized not only the lessons of Jobim and Gilberto, Hall and Burrell, but also those of Jimmy Nolen and Steve Cropper.

Per usual, Reeves’ apex came not during her numbers but between them, with a rubato scat soliloquy that turned into a sung narrative about meeting Nelson Mandela. The crowd, already excitable, hit a fever pitch.

Al Foster was on hand with his working quartet featuring Eli Degibri, an artfully authoritative tenorist who developed under another Miles Davis alum, Herbie Hancock. Foster reined in his own technique beautifully, toying with swing in a way that was kinetic but never overpowering. His group was clearly inspired, even if some choices in repertoire-“So What”-weren’t.

Anticipation mounted throughout the week for trumpeter and flugelhorn player Hugh Masekela’s 70th birthday performance on the large arena stage Kippies. Over the noisy din of thousands of chattering and cheering Africans, Masekela worked his horn, handheld percussion and the audience tirelessly, turning his event into an impassioned communal milestone. While he is capable of blowing straightahead, Masekela continues to explore his amalgam of worldbeat and R&B with polite choruses of bright flugelhorn. There’s an irony underneath Masekela’s music and so much Cape jazz: It’s a consistently jubilant, lilting music with few changes, often buffed to a smooth-jazz luster, but it streamlines pertinent dialogue regarding domestic issues, spirituality, national and continental pride and politics. “Unlike the United States where they sing mostly about love, we sing in Africa about the quality of our lives,” Masekela said at his press conference, the most fearless and insightful of all the media events.

During his time with the press, Masekela, who is viewed, like many of Africa’s cultural exports, as a combination artist-sage-politician-ambassador, stressed the importance of SA artists not relying on governmental support. “To a certain extent,” he said, “the political community [in many African countries] fears the arts because it’s always a commentary on the quality of our lives.” He was also adamant about black South Africans not taking their freedom for granted.

“After we became free, the world figured, well, they’re OK, and they forgot about us. But we forgot about us, too,” said Masekela. “We didn’t continue with the same kind of energy, and we expected miracles to come out of our freedom. And we became complacent. My warning word, actually, to the South African communities is … if you’re not vigilant about your freedom … they will take it away from you while you are sleeping. And in the morning when you wake up, you will find yourself right back where you were before you were free. … If you don’t believe what I’ve said, look at Zimbabwe and you’ll see what I mean.” Just don’t expect that brand of well-placed vitriol in the sonics of his music.

In historical and cultural contexts, his birthday performance, which included songs from his new album, Phola (Four Quarters), was astounding. Watching Masekela and thousands of men and women who suffered under apartheid chant “I’m an African!” is an indelible memory. But for the jazzhead in search of improvisational furor, or anything beyond vamps, a concurrent set featuring Dave Liebman’s quartet was too tempting. Liebman’s performance, a polar opposite of Masekela’s in its concentrated intensity, was the closest this festival got to a modern jazz ideal. “Dimi and the Blue Men,” which Liebman explained was written after a 60th birthday trip to the Sahara, presented probably the keenest meeting of postbop and world elements heard all weekend. Closing interpretations of Ornette (“Lonely Woman”) and Trane (“India”) reiterated how comprehensively he knows that turf. Throughout, guitarist Vic Juris’ hard angles, flinty tone and ambient volume swells proved how being hip and an active clinician are not mutually exclusive. (You could say the same for Liebman.)

Not to say all the African artists were incapable of jazz you might witness in an American club; they often were. The drummer Maurice Gawronsky led a hard-swinging unit in a hard- and postbop mold, featuring a young powerhouse trumpeter, Feya Faku, who must really dig Freddie Hubbard. Saxophonist McCoy Mrubata, who was celebrating his 50th birthday, took to mighty modal flight; Mrubata’s trumpeter, Marcus Wyatt, evoked Dave Douglas, and his guitarist, Louis Mhlanga, combined an Afropop lexicon with conventional funk and Hendrix-isms (like an extended backward-tracked solo). The loop-happy bassist/leader Carlo Mombelli and his Prisoners of Strange played intriguing if self-consciously esoteric avant-groove music. On a “jazz safari” through the middleclass township of Bridgetown, the composer/guitarist Mac McKenzie played Bach and speedy chord-melody arrangements of standards on a hollowbody.

McKenzie, a wiry, spirited man who exudes a zany sort of charisma, proved as ambitious a conceptualist as anyone who played the festival. (This township music tour, hosted by a company called Coffeebeans Routes, was unrelated to the fest and paralleled the blues tours of Mississippi-an earnest quest for “authenticity.”) He is currently composing for string quartet and previously fronted the Genuines, an ’80s-era punk act that imagines Bad Brains playing traditional South African goema music. Dig this MP3: They’re a curiosity-seeking hipster’s dream.

Another guitarist stunned early on at the festival, and while he probably isn’t capable of McKenzie’s Joe Pass-ish picking, he made for this writer’s highlight. Dr. Philip Malombo Tabane, whom world-music types might recall from a Nonesuch release in the late ’80s, was at once razor sharp and rustic, combining traditional African melodicism with the showmanship of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll and the scribble-scrabble runs of jazz guitar’s out-est free improvisers. Wearing snakeskin trousers, he manhandled his Gibson hollowbody with an insatiable sense of discovery, coaxing sounds by hitting the strings with a drumstick, wiping them with his sleeve, and placing the guitar directly on the stage and attacking it with either his foot or like a pianist at a keyboard. His set was full of composed themes with elastic forms that expanded and contracted whenever he wanted them to. In the tradition of Chuck Berry or John Lee Hooker or Dylan, Tabane’s accompaniment-drummer Thanbang Tabane Malombo, percussionist Given Mphago and electric bassist Zakhele Ntuli-simply followed his whims. His Blood Ulmer-esque atonal assaults lasted however long he liked. He returned to lovely, uncluttered motifs whenever the mood struck him.

Even if it wasn’t jazz proper, it was certainly a sound of surprise.


South African Airways: Visit for schedules to Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Originally Published