Dan Shout: In With a Shout

Dan Shout: In With a Shout
Seton Hawkins BY

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My experiences as a Southern African growing up in Africa and the stories of these songs, my family, and our culture are my secret weapons.
—Dan Shout
While it might be a cliché to say it, one can expect the unexpected when listening to the music of Dan Shout. An exceptional saxophonist and composer, the Cape Town-based artist has also built a sterling track record of creating highly distinctive and exciting albums. While he initially made a splash in 2012 with his sophomore release Serenading Ghosts, recorded in the abandoned Namibian ghost town of Kolmanskop, Shout has rightly earned a great deal of acclaim for his more recent In With a Shout project. On In With a Shout's self-titled release in 2014, Shout demonstrated incredible leaps forward in his composing skills, writing for an unorthodox frontline of three tenor saxophones. As he now celebrates the release of his latest album, Secret Weapons, Shout has taken some of these musical ideas even further. Indeed, his writing and arranging have become more ambitious and confident with the ensemble, congealing into an extraordinary musical statement.

All About Jazz: With your latest albums and the In With a Shout project, you feature an unusual frontline of three saxophones. It represents an expansion from your earlier ensembles. Can you talk about what inspired that?

Dan Shout: I think one of the biggest influencing factors was doing a tour around the United States with Johnny Clegg and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. We did eight shows together as a double bill, and I went to every single one of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's gigs. Although I knew exactly what was going to happen on each gig, I went there to see it happen again. I started to think about how that's a male vocal choir, and I thought about how three tenor saxophones could be like three male voices in an instrumental form. I thought that if a male vocal trio could work, why couldn't three tenor saxophones work?

There was also the issue of who I wanted to play with. Cape Town's got some phenomenal Jazz musicians, but they don't play the same style. So even though someone's amazing, they're not necessarily compatible. I really let who I wanted to play with guide me in terms of personnel on the album.

To be honest, I don't know a whole bunch about arranging. But once I'd already done my first In With a Shout album there were some experienced arrangers who said to me, "Wow, that's unusual to have three tenors." I didn't really think too much about it, because I thought it worked. Now, on the new album Secret Weapons, Sisonke Xonti—who was on the last album—had moved to Joburg. It made it a bit trickier to develop ideas or to record with him. So I used Justin Bellairs, who's a great alto player. I felt that gave me an extra arrow in the quiver, because I do feel having that the alto as the lead voice can cut through a little bit more, like a trumpet would've done in a three-horn section. So although I thought the three tenors worked out on the last album, having alto on this one actually worked out quite well. Really, the thinking behind it was just that I wanted to do some ensemble writing that was bigger than a quartet, but with people that I wanted to work with who are good players. I got to experiment with the concept of having a male vocal trio, except instrumentally.

AAJ: On both In With a Shout and Secret Weapons, you also prominently feature the electric guitar, with Gorm Helfjord on In With a Shout and Michael Bester on Secret Weapons. In fact, it sounds like a fourth lead voice in the way you write for it.

DS: I'm a huge lover of guitar. I actually came to Jazz later in life when I went to varsity, but before that I was a full-on rocker: Metallica, Megadeth, and that sort of stuff. I've always had a soft spot for guitar. Gorm Helfjord and I obviously had a fantastic relationship. Hopefully I will work with him in the future of course, but he moved back to Norway. Initially, I wrote the Secret Weapons album without guitar, because I didn't want to put just any guitarist in. So it was actually more piano based with Andrew Ford.

Luckily, when Gorm went back to Norway, Michael Bester happened to move back to Cape Town. I had worked with Michael over the last couple of years, but that was up in Johannesburg in more of the corporate sort of scene. I was aware of what a fantastic player he is, because I met him when I studied with him at UCT [University of Cape Town] back in the early 2000s. Since then, he's done a hell of a lot of gigs around the whole of South Africa, and spent a year at Berklee in Valencia, Spain. Then, his wife got a job in Cape Town so he ended up moving back to Cape Town. And I was like, "Well, what God giveth with one hand, he taketh with the other!" Gorm left and Michael Bester has come back.

I like guitarists who have got more of a rock sound, but who can play Jazz. I like people who could play on a hollow body and play a straight-ahead Wes Montgomery vibe, but who can also play with pedals and distortion. So when Michael came back, I just said to him, "Hey man, I'm just about to record this album. Please, could you play on it?" And funnily enough, when I did a gig up in Joburg with the same material about two years ago, I couldn't take my whole band. So I took two or three guys up, and then the rest of the band were actually guys already living there. Then, I filled the band with two or three other friends of mine who hadn't done the project, and Michael was one of them. So he was familiar with the material when we went to record, but it had been developed quite a lot more since when he first played it. But he's a ridiculous professional. I started to write for guitar in a more more complicated or more complex way, because he literally plays the horn lines exactly like the horns do, whereas I would give Gorm more free rein to go and do what he thought was best. Michael and Gorm each brought different strengths to the sound. I'm acutely aware that guitar and saxophone work very well together, so sometimes I would double certain things on the guitar that I was playing, or on another part just to reinforce it. But I would also give them the rhythmic aspect and the improv aspect as well.

AAJ: On both albums, but particularly on In With a Shout, one hears the strong influence of Cape artists like the Dyers brothers.

DS: I think there are some hugely influential genres of South African Jazz, particularly from up north. The only problem for me is that I didn't really come to Jazz through those genres. I came to Jazz while I was at UCT, studying classical clarinet. Some of the guys who were a few years ahead of me were people like Kesivan Naidoo, Buddy Wells, Marc de Kock, and Melanie Scholtz. And it was there that I got exposed to Jazz. I didn't actually come up through the Johannesburg or the Durban scenes, the "classic" sort of South African Jazz. I came up in the Cape Jazz sound. What started getting me to love Jazz was hearing the students who were older than me and who are brilliant Jazz musicians nowadays, but also through playing the arrangements of Darryl Andrews and Mike Campbell. They would regularly feature people like Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Robbie Jansen, Selaelo Selota, and Marcus Wyatt as special guests. I feel that my influence of South African Jazz is very specifically through the magnifying glass of the Cape Jazz sound. I'm not saying I don't love or I don't listen to Hugh Masekela or Miriam Makeba or Bheki Mseleku, but my focus, my upbringing, and my love for South African Jazz in particular came through Alvin Dyers, Errol Dyers, Darryl Andrews, Mike Campbell and Andrew Lilley. So instead of writing a samba, I'd rather write a ghoema. That's a sound that I love, and I've tried to sound like the Cape. I try and make my own version of the Cape, but in a way that's like Yellowjackets Meets Ghoema, if you know what I'm trying to say! AAJ: As we move from In With a Shout to Secret Weapons, the compositional range gets quite a bit more ambitious. Can you talk about that development?

DS: I'm a busking composer and arranger, a trial-and-error composer and arranger. Having said that, I play a lot of ensemble music, whether it's big band or tentet, and all sorts of different people's compositions. I think I know generally how it's supposed to sound if it's good. I'm not necessarily sure how to do that, pen-to-paper like a "real" arranger. But it's something I love and it's something I work on and study. I'm always trying to improve myself the whole time. So I think that on In With a Shout, I really felt I took a huge turn in sort of picking the correct personnel for the album, writing better for them, and also discovering myself as to what I wanted to say and who I am and keeping it real in a way. With this album three years later, I think I took another huge step in the right direction. Now I'm trying to find where I think I'm going with it.

Another thing that I must reference is that about three years ago, I was very lucky to play with Maria Schneider. It was at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and also in Norway. Although I was a classical clarinetist, I had sort of shelved the clarinet, though I did double on it for some big bands. Otherwise, I was like, "Okay, I'm a saxophonist, and I'm focusing on saxophone." But with Maria, I heard the magic again of using woodwinds like flutes and clarinets and bass clarinets. I thought it was such a great sound, and I realized that I had players who can do that. It just gives the music a whole different angle than just a tenor saxophone in a quartet. That short time playing with her re-awoke my curiosity to start not being lazy in terms of writing just for saxophones, and instead try to pull in the woodwinds. That was a huge influence.

Another thing I did better on this album is that I let the songs breathe a little bit. I wrote them, I performed them, I got my UCT ensembles to perform them, and then I'd listen to them and go, "What's missing? What isn't kicking? How could I improve it?" I slowly chipped away until they were ready. Funnily enough, I've got about three or four more songs that I thought I was going to record, which I didn't record because I thought the seven that I've put down on the last album were the ones that were ready to go. So for me it's just really trial and error and just trying to improve all the time.

AAJ: There are a number of musical through-lines connecting the two albums, and in both cases you certainly work with a variety of different genres.

DS: I don't consider myself a seasoned composer. I end up sitting down to write a song and it goes on a route. Like I mentioned, I've got a lot of different influences that I love. I came from rock and metal, and I studied classical clarinet. My gateway drug to Jazz was South African Jazz of course. But I also love funk; I love Horace Silver and Lee Morgan. There's one song in the new album called "Beer Jersey Boogaloo," which I specifically tried to write in a Soul Jazz sort of way. If I had to sit down and write like eight songs in one style, I think that would be really hard for me to do. That's why the songs are quite different on the album. I do think on every album I have a funk tune; "Tea with Alvin" on the last one was Brecker-esque, dare I say it. And then on "Bennie's Farm," again I was writing about a feeling. Bennie's Farm is one of my friend's farm. Things always start off funky there, and then they get a bit strange in the middle of the night after we braaied and had a couple too many gin and tonics, and then they always end up ok in the morning! I think at the time I composed that song, I was listening a lot to Lettuce. Often I'm listening to stuff, and I find myself writing to see if I can do the Cape answer to that. Again, playing to the strengths of the musicians that I have. Marc de Kock is a hell of a funky saxophonist and Andrew Ford is a great funk player on piano. The song is not incredibly complex, but just those guys are so funky that I wanted to play a song like that with them.

AAJ: Looking at some of the collaborators you've worked with, you've managed to bring in almost a Who's Who of great drummers in South Africa across your albums!

DS: Yeah, I love them. It's a treat to play with them.

AAJ: Are these collaborators the "secret weapons" you reference in the album title?

DS: I found myself having a set of compositions, and thinking of what I'm trying to say, where I'm trying to go with it in terms of what I'm saying in the Southern African landscape. There are a lot of phenomenal players, some very heavy duty players in South Africa who are dealing with concepts that I'm not equipped to deal with. Concepts like apartheid South Africa, or the New South Africa, or where things are going wrong or are unfair in South Africa. Whilst I note all that, I wasn't raised in South Africa. I was born in a free Zimbabwe, I was raised in a free Namibia, and I grew up in South Africa. Whilst I'm obviously sensitive to those topics, I think if I'm to keep it real, I don't really have a place to sort of deal with those issues. It's not really me to do that. What I'm trying to do is create an album which deals with some of the positives, and is more lighthearted.

I'm trying to present a fourth stream in South African Jazz that is not what other people are doing, because I think we are always trying to find our differentiation in the marketplace. So how I've mentioned already came to Jazz through Cape Jazz as opposed to northern South African Jazz, and I mentioned how I haven't come from the same background as a lot of South Africans. I'm trying to still put something forward, something I think is complex but not necessarily too profound. I'm a joker. I'm a beer drinker. I love my sport. But also love Jazz, you know?

Secret Weapons deals with the fact that for starters, even famous Jazz musicians are unknown. If I say to my buddies, "Have you checked out the new Branford Marsalis album?," they're like, "Who?" If you're into Jazz, that's obviously one of the biggest names you can get. Even famous Jazz musicians are not famous, so even though some of the guys on my album are heavyweights in South African Jazz, they are unknown. Essentially they are my "secret weapons" that I'm using to bring my music to fruition. I also feel my experiences as a Southern African growing up in Africa and the stories of these songs, my family, and our culture are my secret weapons.. And I think that in terms of my compositions and the instrumentation, if I pull out Marc de Kock on the flute, that's the secret weapon for that tune. So I just started to think about what it is that defines me, and what it is that defines the album. I feel like I've got so many secret weapons at my disposal. There's this whole culture going on here whether people in other countries know it or not.

AAJ: With the latest album, you partnered with PathWay Records on its release. Your prior albums were self-released efforts. What changed?

DS: About three years ago, I went to perform at the Wigan International Jazz Festival in England. It was there that I heard a saxophonist called Paul Booth. We heard that Paul was playing with the trumpet player Ryan Quigley, and that they were both great English players who were doing a Stan Getz and Clifford Brown tribute with strings. So we played our gig and then they came in after us and played in the hall. Marc de Kock and I were just blown away. They were unbelievable musicians, just world-class players. That's one of the most exciting things about being at these festivals, that you get to hear other people you didn't necessarily know. After the gig, before I knew it, Marc tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Hey Dan, have you met Paul?" We hit it off and we had a pint and I said to him, "Listen man, if you ever come to Cape Town please look us up. I'd love to play with you, book you some gigs, or we can just hang out."

You say that sort of thing all the time, and it usually doesn't necessarily come off. But a year later, I got an Instagram message from Paul, saying, "Hey Dan, I'm coming to Cape Town on holiday. Are you around?" And I said, "Sure, I'll show you some wine farms!" And he came out and jammed on a couple of gigs with me. We had some fun and we really just got on exceptionally well. It was a real treat to hang out with him and get to jam with him. That's when he told me about his recording label. At the time I didn't really think too much of it, except that he told me it was a record label that specifically deals with Jazz in a more World Music vein. I thought that was very interesting. Two years later, I was doing the Secret Weapons album, and was about to go through the usual route of just uploading it onto CDBaby, getting it onto iTunes and Spotify and everything.

But then I thought, "Let me just drop Paul a line and see if he'd be interested." I thought that I'd love to be associated with him. Maybe he could give me some tips and let me know how he goes about releasing his albums. I can't say enough as to how helpful he was and how encouraging he was in getting me onto his label and assisting me with all the questions that I had. It's just been fantastic. I think when I go over to England again, he would be part of the project playing my music, which is another secret weapon.

So I thought to try a new way of releasing the album, to learn from the guys who are doing this all the time, and see where it takes me. So right from album cover design to the release date, ISRC codes, and where to punt the album, Paul just gave me advice. Before, you feel like you're a lone ninja. So to have a little team together who back what you're doing and think it's good is quite encouraging. It feels like I'm going up a step all the time, as opposed to backwards.

AAJ: You referenced on a few occasions the idea of the artists as your secret weapons, and the guest appearance of Gordon Vernick on the album certainly seems to fit the bill. How did you and he meet?

DS: That's a long story, but I'll try to keep it short. About ten years ago, I turned on my Mac, and on the Apple homepage it said "The year was 1959, one of the most influential years in Jazz history. Click on this for a free podcast." I thought, "Oh great, this is awesome." The guy who presented the podcast was Gordon Vernick. I listened to these Jazz history podcasts of his. They were about fifteen minutes each, and they were awesome. I started to look him up online, but I couldn't find any way to contact him except for a form on his website. So I filled out the form really casually, like "Hey Gordon, my name is Dan Shout, I'm from Cape Town. I Love Jazz, I love your podcast. I'm associated with UCT, and next year is the Soccer World Cup in South Africa. If you're ever thinking about coming this way, give me a shout. Would be great to have you." Done. About two, three months later I get this inbox in my mail: "Hey Dan, this is Gordon Vernick. I'd love to come to South Africa. I'm the coordinator of Jazz Studies at Georgia State University, and I've got funding to bring myself. All I need is an official invite, and I'm there." Boom. Cool. So I sent him an invite through Mike Rossi at the University of Cape Town. Next thing, Gordon was an on an airplane, and we just hit it off.

He just did his tenth trip to South Africa this year, where he conducted the South African National Schools Big Band at Grahamstown, which he had also helped me with two years ago. He's also the guy who gave Darren English a scholarship to Georgia State and he's just given two more kids scholarships to come to the States. We've just had this great relationship between Atlanta and Cape Town, and I went over to visit him last year. He's basically become part of the family. You know, since I met Gordon, I've had two little kids and they call him "Bad Grandpa" because he's a bad trumpet player, and he likes whiskey and cigars! He's a really close friend and a mentor to me nowadays.

Gordon was out while I was recording that album, and I said, "Hey man, it would be a great honor if you would blow some changes." To have somebody who has had nine million downloads of his Jazz history lectures on iTunes now play on my album is a fairy tale story for me, coming from Zimbabwe and Namibia. And then again, tying in with Secret Weapons, he's another one of my secret weapons. He's a world-class trumpet player, and a really good friend. We actually recorded another track together, by the way. It's not released yet, but I did my own arrangement of "Angola" by Bheki Mseleku. It has a re-harmonization at the top and at the coda, with trumpet and tenor, and also using Kevin Gibson, Andrew Ford and Dave Ridgeway. We are still figuring out what we're going to do with that, but we've slowly started to record a couple of tracks together to celebrate the sort of Cape Town-Atlanta relationship that we've had.

I've learned a hell of a lot since I've met Gordon. He's taken me under his wing and spoken to me about things I need to work on. I've been hugely grateful for that, so it was just great to have him on the album.

AAJ: It's a fantastic track, and it does jump out quite a bit, given the woodwind frontline on the rest of the album.

DS: I was thinking about putting sax on it. But Andrew Ford, the pianist who recorded the album and did a lot of the mixing and mastering, said to me, "You know, let's not put sax on here. It'll be so refreshing to just have trumpet." I think he nailed it.

AAJ: You've already referenced coming to Jazz via a circuitous route, and indeed your compositions reflect that. When we think about your career, you have a substantial track record as a session musician. You had long musical association with Johnny Clegg. Can you talk a bit about some of those professional experiences prior to your solo records?

DS: While I was studying at UCT, I was very lucky to be there in this sort of golden age of the brand new South Africa. I began high school in 1994, which is the year of the New South Africa, and I found myself at UCT in 1999. That was pretty much a fresh start in a way, and a lot of the Jazz that was happening in Cape Town with some of the names that I mentioned earlier was just so exciting. A lot of the legends were still alive, your Winston Mankunkus and your Robbie Jansens. You could still see them at jam sessions and play with them.

I would say that my first lucky breaks were playing with Darryl Andrew's tentet that would feature Winston Mankunku a lot, and also playing with the UCT Big Band who would feature alumni. I slowly found myself doing all sorts of society gigs, corporates, weddings, and that sort of stuff. I was really just on a massive learning curve, and there was almost no style of music that I didn't learn something from. I'd be jamming with House DJs, and then on the same night I might be playing with the big band or in a tentet with Cape Jazz legends. Or I might be at the SAJE conference playing big band music with someone like Chris Collins.

So I was really going through this massive learning curve, playing all these different styles of music. It's really hard for me to actually say which were the most amazing gigs that I did over the years, because I've been very lucky. I got to played Jacob Zuma's second inauguration, where I was in the stage band backing loads of South African pop bands like Mango Groove. At the same time, I had a seven-year stint with Johnny Clegg, which was a massive learning experience. I love all sorts of different types of music, and I guess I'm proud of the fact that they come out in what I guess you could say is my Jazz—or "Not Jazz," depending on how strict you are! It's just coming from a place of loving and being excited about a whole bunch of different styles of music. I played any gig I could get my hands on. I loved it.

AAJ: You've referenced a number of mentor figures to you. You also developed as a teacher throughout your career. How did you impart this broader view to students?

DS: That's quite a hard one, to be honest, because I think being a teacher is about consistently learning. You can think you've got it all figured out, and then suddenly you realize that what works for one type of student does not work for another type of student. I think a lot of the young kids nowadays practice a lot harder and a lot more studiously than we did twenty years ago. But they sometimes lack the understanding that we are part of a community, we're part of the Cape Town Jazz community and the South African Jazz fraternity. If you're locking yourself in a practice room and you're smashing "Giant Steps" and "Cherokee" but you never go to the jam sessions and you don't know who our local legends are, then it's almost pointless in a way. That's very important to me. I was taking Improv I at UCT last year, and there were some very good young cats, but the huge thing I told them was, "Hey guys, I'm not seeing you at jam sessions or at gigs. What's going on? You're not seeing the big picture here." It's not about tritone substitutions. That's useless if you're not part of this thing. Life is so short.

For me, having mentors like Gordon Vernick, Mike Campbell, and Andrew Lilley, I have people around that I'm asking questions of all the time. Things like, "I'm trying to do this, how do you voice that? How did you do that?" A lot of time, the people who were my mentors weren't saxophone players. Most of my saxophone heroes are overseas and large. So with the advent of YouTube, or the fact that you can buy a Chad Lefkowitz-Brown masterclass for the price of a Spur burger and a milkshake, that also made a huge difference to me because I learned a hell of a lot from online. I'm always trying to stay on cutting edge concepts. Even if I'm not implementing them in my playing as well as I could be, I still have them. I'll never forget when Justin Bellairs, who's on my album, came back from Norway while I was teaching at UCT. And I was standing in at UCT and I had to teach Justin! This guy came back from Norway playing thirteen shades of the proverbial through "Giant Steps," no issue, but you have to be able to tell him something.

I find that if you're not trying to keep your sword sharp by checking out what's going on in the States and Europe, then you're going to come unstuck. The younger guys are going to overtake you. And then in the cases when you have a Justin Bellairs who has overtaken you in terms of playing, I found that I was able to offer advice and experience in terms of time on the mile, gigging and preparing albums, or dealing with people in invoicing and contracts. Even super young players who are really advanced, like a Justin Bellairs or a Benjamin Jephta, they might not have the life experience. So then I try to offer them information they wouldn't have had. So it's tricky, I'm not going to lie. I do think that Jazz Education is getting better and better, and particularly in South Africa. Our players are getting exposed to more and more, they're traveling more, and they're collaborating with people from overseas. There are some incredible things going on. You can think you're nailing one sort of genre, and then somebody else comes killing it with a totally different thing.

AAJ: On this idea of continued development and growth, we talked already about the kind of expanded instrumental lineup in Secret Weapons. Is there a vision to take that further with larger ensemble efforts?

DS: I guess the answer would be yes. I think I'd like to still do another album with a similar lineup and take the ideas a step further. I'd make them a bit more mature. I love the last album, but I feel like this latest one took a big step up, and I think that the third one would take as big a leap up again. Having said that, I just arranged my first big band chart yesterday. Like I mentioned, I didn't study arrangement, and I've never had a reason to do a big band chart. But annually I organize a big band gig for charity at my old high school, because we're trying to create a scholarship for music. One of the bands in Cape Town is a great ska band called Grassy Spark, and we wanted to do one of their tunes for the big band. So I arranged a big band chart for it.

I think that the bug has possibly bitten for me to do some more big band arranging. But I think that I'd need to spend some time studying that a bit more. Of course, I've played a lot of big band music and I know the general sound, but knowing the general vibe and being a quality big band arranger are two totally different things. So for now, I'd like to keep it at the size it is, and then pull people in as the music needs. Whether that's a trumpet solo, or a trombone, or maybe there are some brilliant marimba players in town that I'd love to use. I've got some ideas bubbling in the back of my mind, but not necessarily going bigger. I'd like to get more quality and more mature. If that leads to doing something bigger then sure, no problem. The other problem is I'm entirely self funded, so I basically slay wedding season and Cape Town, which is about seven months, and I work my ass off. I really love that because I'm playing with basically the same guys on my album, we just happen to be putting on suits and playing "Have You Met Miss Jones?," which is a jol, playing wine farms, drinking shiraz, and making people happy. But then I save money to do another Jazz album, which is basically a flag-waving expedition.

When I do these sorts of albums, I'm doing them purely for artistic creativity and to keep my soul happy. I would love to do some bigger stuff, but only if and when it's called for.

Photo Credit: Team Team Photography

Selected Discography:

Dan Shout, Serenading Ghosts, (Self Released, 2012)
Dan Shout, In With a Shout, (Self Released, 2014)
In With a Shout, Secret Weapons, (PathWay Records, 2018)

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