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Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2015

Mark Sullivan By

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Cape Town International Jazz Festival
Cape Town International Convention Centre
Cape Town, South Africa
March 27 & 28, 2015

The Cape Town International Jazz Festival takes place over two jam-packed nights, on five simultaneous stages. Now in its sixteenth year, it also includes a number of ancillary events during festival week: workshops, a photo exhibition, master classes, and an outdoor free concert in Greenmarket Square (on Wednesday night). The free concert offers a taste of the festival to community members who can't afford festival tickets, or can't get them (the festival sells out in advance every year). Like the festival itself, the concert included a mix of international and South African acts. Headlined by British saxophonist Courtney Pine and South Africa's Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse, the bill also included the winner of the popular local "Open Mic Jazz Vocal" competition, Zoë Modiga, and Cape Town pop group Beatenberg as well as the All Star Band (a showcase for local talent). It was a jubilant street party, and a great introduction to the city.

Day One (Friday)

Basia

The first big international act on the Kippies stage—the huge amphitheater that was reserved for the acts with the broadest audience appeal—was Polish/U.K. singer Basia and her band. After opening with "Third Time Lucky" and "Baby You're Mine" she told the audience that she was "glad you like samba, because there's going to be a lot of it." The next selection included a scat section with her backup singers a la The Manhattan Transfer, giving the performance more of a jazz flavor. For the fourth tune she noted that "it is a jazz festival" before launching into the swing feel of "How Dare You." Basia was in good voice, and has a solid band. There was still some adjustments being made in the P.A. (it was early, after all), but it was fine for arena sound.

Andrea Motis & Joan Chamorro Group

Over on the Moses Molelekwa stage—a large rectangular auditorium-like space—I heard acoustic jazz from the Spanish ensemble the Andrea Motis & Joan Chamorro Group. There's a long tradition of jazz trumpeters who also sing, from Louis Armstrong to Chet Baker. Andrea Motis is more of a vocalist who plays trumpet, but she does both very well. The band's sound leans toward mainstream acoustic jazz, making the Baker comparison apt. Their set included the standard "April Showers," a ballad, an up-tempo Latin tune, and an original with a more contemporary funk feel. So they have some range. Something of a prodigy, Motis was a delight on vocals and trumpet, and guitarist Josep Traver also stood out. A pleasant discovery.

Gerald Clayton Trio

Rosies was the most traditional performance space in the Cape Town International Convention Centre, a proscenium theatre with permanent seating. It would be suitable for dramatic productions or classical music recitals, and had the best sound of any of the venues, as well as the most comfortable environment. The Gerald Clayton Trio (the first American act I heard) was perfectly suited to the setting. It's a very conversational piano trio, in the Bill Evans mold. Drummer Obed Calvaire was unusually active (and technically dazzling). In "Dusk Baby," a gospel-tinged tune with echoes of Keith Jarrett, he and Clayton took an extended piano/drum duet. Bassist Joe Sanders often chose to lay out like this. On the closing tune he would sometimes interject a phrase here and there instead of walking constantly—again, very conversational. The group also played Clayton's "Under Madhatter Medicinal Groupon (UMMG)" (a wry reference to Billy Strayhorn's "U.M.M.G. (Upper Manhattan Medical Group)"), and the ballad "Skylark." There was a bit of bass thump bleeding through from another stage during the closing tune, which I'm sure was distracting to the musicians (the only disturbance of this sort that I noticed during the festival). This performance was still one of the highlights of the festival for me.

Sipho 'Hotstix' Mabuse

Saxophonist/vocalist Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse brought his township jive sound to an adoring audience on the big stage (his first instrument was drums, which explains the nickname). Hits like "Burn Out" and "Jive Soweto" got the kind of response most performers only dream of, including spontaneous line dancing in the audience. When Mabuse sung his cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" the crowd sang along with the kind of fervor Marley himself used to receive: a potent reminder of the power of music during the years of struggle against apartheid. The energy level in the room was simply awesome: they almost literally blew the roof off the joint.

Mahotella Queens

The Mahotella Queens—a staple of mbaqanga music—celebrated their 50th anniversary on the same stage, beginning by introducing new group members. As someone who had previously only heard recordings, I was struck by the importance of choreography in their performances. These women hardly ever stop dancing, even during the instrumental breaks. They are such a beloved South African cultural institution that even an accidental pratfall was taken in good humor by the crowd. Sipho Mabuse returned to the stage as guest vocalist, taking on the traditional "groaner" role. The song was announced as an "old song," and the crowd recognized it from the opening chords. Given the status the Queens enjoy in the history of South African popular music I had expected this show to trump the energy level of Mabuse's set. But while a spirited performance, it never quite hit those heights.

Purbayan Chatterjee & Talvin Singh with Shane Cooper

Purbayan Chatterjee & Talvin Singh with Shane Cooper brought their fusion of traditional Indian classical music with contemporary world music genres (including jazz) to the Moses Molelekwa stage, arguably the most varied and experimental festival venue. Sitarist Chatterjee and tabla player Singh began their set with a traditional sitar/tabla duet, but as the set went on they added Cooper's double bass and computer beats to the mix, all without ever losing the Indian core of their sound. Chatterjee even used overdrive and other electronic processing on his sitar, and at one point Cooper played a solo over his own loop, all done in real time. Chatterjee introduced a tune called "Lullaby" saying it was the right time of day, but promised not to act on it. I certainly was never in danger of falling asleep. Another pleasant surprise, and easily the most non-mainstream music I heard at the festival.

Courtney Pine presents: House of Legends

My final Friday show took me to the Basil "Manenberg" Coetzee stage, an outdoor amphitheater in the Convention Center parking lot. British act Courtney Pine presents: House of Legends plays a jazz style suited to such a venue. Pine plays John Coltrane-style sheets of sound soprano sax (and the electronic EWI) over a calypso groove, a call back to his Caribbean heritage. The band features steelpan player Samuel Bubois and two guitarists who primarily play rhythm. Pine is a virtuosic horn player, and an ebullient band leader. He was able to convince the crowd to participate in a singing contest (men versus women), as well as jumping 102 times for a world record!

Day Two (Saturday)

Mike Perry's Tribute to Winston Mankunku

Mike Perry's Tribute to Winston Mankunku featured the music of South African saxophonist Winston Mankunku Ngozi, who may have been the foremost South African tenor player, as well as composer. Pianist Perry was a playing partner, so he is intimate with these tunes. He and his trio presented music that had clear ties to both South African music and acoustic jazz. The rhythms were South African—no bebop here—but there was no question that they were jazz improvisers, playing from the jazz tradition. The songs were bright and melodic, and frequently elicited immediate recognition applause from the audience. It was both fresh and familiar to me. After a few tunes guest vibraphonist Merton Barrow (introduced as "the dean of South African jazz education") joined the group, adding a fresh timbre to the sound.

Dee Dee Bridgewater & Irvin Mayfield with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra

Dee Dee Bridgewater & Irvin Mayfield with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra brought an acoustic jazz ensemble to the cavernous Kippies stage. And they pulled it off, courtesy of a totally hot performance. Bridgewater has enough style and sass to hold any stage I can imagine, plus the vocal chops to back them up. They began with "Hold Your Water," moved on to a new arrangement of the Harry Connick, Jr. song "One Fine Thing," then on to "Lay Your Burden Down" and a Duke Ellington tune. Bridgewater finally got a break while the band played Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" (a terrific big band arrangement with no connection to New Orleans that I know of). But the N.O. connection was back in full force with "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans."

Bänz Oester & The Rainmakers

Bänz Oester & The Rainmakers (a Swiss/South African ensemble) play progressive acoustic jazz along the lines of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner. Bassist Oester and tenor saxophonist Ganesh Geymeier met South Africans Afrika Mkhize (piano) and Ayanda Sikade (drums) at another South African festival—the 2011 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown—and decided to collaborate more regularly. Their repertoire is varied, reflecting their different backgrounds. I heard them play a Romanian folk tune, Jacques Brel's "Amsterdam," and an original by group pianist Afrika Mkhize called "Seven Kings."

Hugh Masekela

Flugelhorn/vocalist Hugh Masekela is one of the best known South African musicians on the international stage. He has been a frequent guest at the Cape Town festival. At age 76 Masekela is still in very good lip, although he did trade off frequently with guitarist Cameron Ward, probably more than he would have when he was younger. The Kippies amphitheater was absolutely packed—these shows never had less than a full house, but this went well beyond the previous ones—and Masekela put on a good show. I was disappointed when it was announced that the co-billed singer Oliver Mtukudzi would not be able to make the show due to visa problems, and so was the crowd. This was the only major cancellation during the festival that I know of. But Masakela soldiered on, with the support of his tight band. There was a great example of his partnership with guitarist Ward during the third song, in which they engaged in an exciting duel (Masekela scatting, Mtukudzi answering on guitar).

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