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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.

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