Sheer All Stars: Indibano/Live @ the Blues Room (1999)

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The Sheer All Stars belong on that short list of contemporary jazz bands (along with the Pat Metheny Group, the Yellowjackets, and Bela Fleck and Flecktones) whose music is both accessible and sophisticated, a rare combination in pop-jazz.

The All Stars are a jazz supergroup comprised of musicians who record for Sheer Sound, a prominent South African label. Its members are five of South Africa's most popular jazzmen: pianist Paul Hanmer, saxophonist McCoy Mrubata, guitarist Errol Dyers, bassist Sipho Gumede, and drummer Frank Pako. Each is a bandleader in his own right.

The Stars have recorded just two CDs, one in the studio and one live. To categorize their music for Americans, it falls somewhere between the Yellowjackets’ clever pop-bop, Spyro Gyra’s catchy pop-tropical fare, and Joe Sample's piano funk. The All Stars integrate a Western feel for improvisation with summery South African rhythms and melodies. The band has a more Americanized sound than most South African jazz groups. Most of their tunes radiate a laid-back subtropical vibe that's surely South African, but subtly so.

To the group's credit, neither recording is mucked-up by any bleating synthesizers, mind-numbing drum machines, or wimpy wind chimes. This is catchy contemporary jazz played by real musicians who can really play. Both CDs are unobtrusively produced and sound closer to mainstream jazz than most American contemporary jazz. While listening to Live @ The Blues Room I was reminded of Lee Ritenour’s excellent Alive in LA, the rare smooth-jazz album completely unspoiled by overdubs.

Hanmer’s piano serves as the Sheer All Stars' foundation, and he’s a tasteful player. Though not as percussive as many South African keyboardists, Hanmer has a melodic touch. He's clearly influenced by marabi, the cyclic three-chord improvisational form that defines most South African jazz, but he strays from it often. He and saxman Mrubata show plenty of chemistry — each is a native of Cape Town and each has played on some of the other’s solo albums. Paco and Gumede hold up the bottom end with aplomb, while Dyers is equally adept on acoustic and electric guitars. Also a Capetown native, Dyers claims no formal training —a fact you won't believe when you hear him play.

I really can't recommend any one of these CDs over the other — both are good. According to Hanmer’s liner notes for Indibano the band’s debut recording was conceived and recorded over a very brief period, yet the performances do not sound slapdash in the least. The opener "Mabarane" has a jaunty groove incorporating rhythms from Zimbabwe. It's a funky and infectious tune, and worth the price of the CD by itself. On the mellow " Iguazú," the interplay between Mrubata and Hanmer recalls Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck. Frank Paco’s catchy composition "Milagre" sounds like one of Spyro Gyra's more radio-friendly confections. A version of this tune also appears on the All Star’s latest release Live @ The Blues Room, as does Dyer's "Languery," a bouncy tune the guitarist describes as "Cape flavored."

Live @ The Blues Room contains more improvisations and lengthier solos than the studio release. Half of its eight songs run longer than 9 minutes. The highlight is Hanmer's lovely "Hymn To The Ballies," an elegiac Abdullah Ibrahim-like piece with a groove-heavy midsection. Another notable track is Mrubata's "Fula," which evokes a busy cityscape through its bustling rhythms and flighty sax work. The crowd noise has mostly been filtered out from Live @ The Blues Room — a strange atmospheric for a live recording, but it doesn’t detract from the music.

Track Listing: Indibano - Mabarane; Iguaz

Personnel: Paul Hanmer (piano, keyboards); Sipho Gumede (electric bass); McCoy Mrubata (alto, tenor and soprano saxophones, flute); Errol Dyers (guitar); Frank Paco (drums)

Record Label: Sheer Sound

Style: Contemporary/Smooth


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