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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.

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.

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