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Review: The Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, Johannesburg, 8/23-25/12

Dozens of international artists converge on South Africa to celebrate jazz

Afrika Mkhize, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, Johannesburg 2012
Bhudaza Mapefane, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, Johannesburg 2012
Earl Klugh, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, Johannesburg 2012
Kurt Elling, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, Johannesburg 2012
Kurt Elling
Maysa, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, Johannesburg 2012
Sax Summit, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, Johannesburg 2012
Grace Kelly, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, Johannesburg 2012
Tineke Postma, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, Johannesburg 2012
Wycliffe Gordon, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, Johannesburg 2012

Just a week after the August 16 mining tragedy that took the lives of 34 striking mine workers, jazz was celebrated as one of the cultural riches of South Africa at the 13th annual Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival in Johannesburg.

The festival, held from Aug. 23-25, featured 50 international artists and 36 from South Africa performing on the main stages-Dinaledi, Mbira, Conga, Bassline and the Market Theatre-as well as smaller venues in the Newtown cultural precinct: Sophiatown, Niki’s Oasis and Shikisha.

For artists such as Kurt Elling and Maysa, this was their first time in South Africa. “This is the cradle of civilization,” Elling said at the press conference at the Hyatt Regency the day before the festival began. “I spend 200 nights on the road. Only one week is in Africa. I’m grateful.” Maysa spoke of her work with Stevie Wonder on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and of her years with the acid jazz group Incognito. When asked about her collaboration with local artists for this festival, she gushed, “South African musicians are so beautiful.”

The same holds true for the South African audience. Music is such a fundamental part of their communal lives-especially singing-that they seemed to sop up the sounds, no matter the style, like syrup on hot buttered biscuits. South African native Seton Hawkins, who works in the education department of Jazz at Lincoln Center, related an instance in which there was a huge traffic jam. Several black South Africans got out of their vehicles and broke out into four-part harmony with ease.

For the festival opener at the Dinaledi Stage, the Sax Summit, featuring female saxophonists from the U.S. (Grace Kelly), U.K. (Rosemary Quaye), Holland (Tineke Postma) and South Africa (Shannon Mowday and Nthabesing Mokoena), the audience responded to solos as if they were home runs hit out of the park.

After squeezing through the scanning security posse-heightened on Friday, August 24, because South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was reportedly in attendance-I saw my first show at the Mbira Stage, where I’d later see Jane Monheit and Clarence Carter. Steel pan man Ken Philmore, from Trinidad & Tobago, played songs familiar to the patrons, numbers by Spyro Gyra (“Morning Dance”), Miriam Makeba (“Pata Pata”) and George Benson (several from the Breezin’ album). Philmore was joined by musicians on the electric keyboard, bass and guitar, congas and standard drum set.

If you closed your eyes you might have thought you were in a Baptist Church Service. This feeling was explicitly true at the Conga Stage when saxophonist Bhudaza Mapefane, from neighboring Lesotho, followed his local hit “Mokete O Senang Nama” with “Glory Hallelujah.”

Whether Maysa sang “Still a Friend of Mine” or “My Funny Valentine” at Mbira the mood was high. Lizz Wright’s set at the more intimate Market Theatre was almost a sing-along, as women chimed into her sultry vocals like rung bells.

On Saturday, the 2012 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner, Afrika Mkhize, led a trio very well versed in the blues-gospel-swing-Latin traditions of American jazz (he seems influenced by Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner and even Cecil Taylor), as well as the music of the truly legendary late South African jazz piano genius, Bheki Mseleku.

Jimmy Dludlu, a singer-guitarist from Mozambique, had a full stage of musicians who collectively shook any semblance of sadness out of the packed Dinaledi Stage audience through sounds that evoked Weather Report, Pat Metheny and Earl Klugh, who himself was featured there later in the evening.

Monheit’s set on the Mbira stage was also quite well received, whether she sang the mid-tempo “Look for the Silver Lining,” a Jobim tune in Portuguese, or the challenging vocalese number by Annie Ross, “Twisted.”

Wycliffe Gordon’s tribute to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington was thrilling: he began with Armstrong’s opening and closing numbers, “Sleepy Time Down South” and “Play That Music” setting the stage for swing-as in “Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Caravan”-where his band mates, including pianist Aaron Diehl, reveled in the freedom, emboldened by the cheers from the crowd. Some patrons danced in the aisles. The mood stayed jubilant as Gordon, who played trombone, trumpet and sang, led the band and audience in “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

To South Africans, music seems to not be deemed, in practice, sacred or secular: going by the reaction of the South Africans at the Joy of Jazz festival, all music derives from a divine source.

Originally Published