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Carlo Mombelli: Angels and Demons

Seton Hawkins By

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You can see my angels and my demons pushing together, and they're pushing into this form of beauty. —Carlo Mombelli
One of music's criminally underrated geniuses, South African electric bassist and composer Carlo Mombelli has carved out a most extraordinary performing and writing career in music. Throughout his four decades as a performer, Mombelli has forged one of the most distinctive electric bass approaches in Jazz, established himself as South Africa's most exceptional composer, and has nurtured and developed an inspiring creative improvising and composing scene in Johannesburg.

With last year's release of his latest album Angels and Demons, Mombelli surprised listeners yet again with an entirely new ensemble conception on what is easily one of his most remarkable records to date.

All About Jazz: Thinking on your earliest experiences, you began on piano, but switched to electric bass. How did that happen?

Carlo Mombelli: I started playing piano because I wanted to be a classical musician. At the age of eight I went to see the ballet Swan Lake. All I knew then was the classical side of it, so I begged my parents to send me to piano lessons, but it never really happened. My Dad was an Italian chef in a hotel, so I just used to play on the piano in their hall where they'd do functions. Then I got a little guitar and I started playing it. When I finally got to high school, they had music as a subject. So I decided to audition for that without my parents' knowledge!

I'm going to deviate for a moment, before I get to the bass. My father always wanted me to be a chef. That was his main thing. He did use me in his restaurant when he found out that I could sing a bit. My dad's restaurant had a cover band that used to play dance music, covers, stuff like that. I loved to listen to them. One day I was singing in the background, and someone heard me sing in the restaurant. He said he wanted me for the Drakensberg Boys Choir. So he went to my dad and said, "Look, your son's got a beautiful voice." My father put two and two together and said, "No, sorry, he works in my restaurant." So, I started singing in my father's restaurant.

It was scandalous, because he also had a strip artist in his club. In those days, the censorship was very high. They even used to put black strips on Michelangelo's statues! Nudity was forbidden in the 1970s. But he had the stripper. I was 12 years old at the time; I used to sing a few tunes and end off with Michael Jackson's "Ben," which is about a mouse. And then the stripper would come on. She would strip completely down and she would have a python that would wrap itself around her body.

That was the only time my dad ever heard my music. And then we ran away from my father because he had many, many girlfriends. Well, we ran away when I was 10, but I went back to stay with my father when I was 12 for a while, because I was torn between my mother and my father.

At high school, I got into classical music and I was into bands like Led Zeppelin. I loved The Police; Bob Marley; Emerson Lake, and Palmer; and I loved Pink Floyd. And then someone played me Weather Report, and I heard the bass line that Jaco Pastorius played. It just spoke to me. I knew I was going to be a musician since I was eight years old, but when Jaco played that, I convinced my mother to get me a 60 Rand Epiphone bass.

We learned basic music stuff in High School; it wasn't that heavy. But that's the only formal music education I ever got. I took what I did on piano, and converted it onto the bass. I've never had a bass lesson in my life. So I took what I was learning on the piano, and I worked it out.

AAJ: Can you talk more about the process you undertook to build your skills on the bass?

CM: I used to go to gigs and looked at how people held the instrument. Then I got into a band. I've always been into composition, and I started composing in High School, and I had a band on the weekends. There was this practice room in Pretoria. It was quite far, and we used to walk. During school holidays, we'd live there. The guitarist had a brother who knew a lot about modes and stuff like that. In those days, we didn't have gig bags, just these big coffins, or flight cases. We had to walk a long distance to the rehearsal room, and if I carried his guitar case, he'd teach me a mode his brother taught him. So I learned to play by playing in bands, listening to things, transcribing.

And then I got to play with guitarist Johnny Fourie. That was my school of music. I was 22 when I got to play with him. He saw me play my music, and so he called me to join his band. I said no, because I said I wasn't good enough to play Jazz. Then he called me back, and said to me that I was only going to get one chance. So I took it.

I had been listening to and transcribing Johnny's stuff. They had a band in Johannesburg, and I used to record everything with a tape recorder and bootleg everything to try to figure it out. They were playing Chick Corea tunes, Billy Cobham, and all of that. And so I learned from playing live onstage with Johnny. He nurtured me, and that's how I learned music.

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