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Dave Ledbetter: Diversity and Unity

Seton Hawkins By

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AAJ: We get to your solo album Scorpio Rising in 1996. Can you talk a bit about that album?

DL: My late lamented solo album! When I was teaching at the Jazz Workshop, I had a young family. I had two children, and I was working seven nights a week and teaching six days a week. The work that I was doing in the evenings was playing at restaurants, playing in pubs and playing rock songs and covers, because that's how you could make a living in apartheid South Africa at that time. So that's what I did. I honed my pop/rock/folk/prog-rock chops doing those gigs over about eight or nine years. They put me in very good stead in terms of what constitutes the popular song. So I was able to write some, and the ones that I wrote ended up on the Truly Fully Hey Shoo Wow album and on Scorpio Rising, which was my first and only solo vocal album, so far. I'm planning to do another one quite soon.

AAJ: To people who have been following your career, it might come as a little surprising that it took until 1996 to record your debut. What do you think accounted for that longer timeline?

DL: It was when I felt ready. I wanted to feel confident. Plus, it wasn't easy to get a record deal and get people to put up the cash to make an album for you. That was probably one of the main reasons. My stuff wasn't mainstream. I wasn't mainstream at all. I mean, I've always gone for stuff that's musical!

AAJ: If we were to take a snapshot of your career in the 1980s, we might say you're a keyboard player. Nowadays we'd pin you as a guitarist, but perhaps the truth is both? Guitar certainly starts to take a more central role in your playing as the decades progress.

DL: Well, I didn't have a good piano to play on at home. I got tired of going to venues and playing whatever the venue threw at you. The great Mary Lou Williams said that if she got confronted with a piano that she didn't like, she'd play it because that's what she was trained to do. I felt the same way, but I also think that to create you need a good instrument to create on. Until quite recently, I didn't have an acoustic piano at home. Now I have one, and I'm doing a lot more writing and playing a lot more piano than I did.

Piano is a great instrument to write on because you get the full spectrum of tonality: the mid, the low, the top. It's easy to write on it, and it's nice to write on for other instruments as well. So piano from a writing point of view is great, but so is guitar, as it opens up other avenues in different ways. One of the projects that I'm working on at the moment is a project where I play both piano and guitar. Not at the same time by the way, that could be a challenge! I want do an album along the lines of a Undercurrent by Bill Evans and Jim Hall. That's one of the few guitar-piano albums where they get it right. Those two guys epitomize empathy in their playing together. There's a lot of listening going on, and there's a lot of stepping back going on and leaving space. But there's also a lot of beautiful playing going on as well.

I'm veering away from your subject, which is "Why more guitar than piano?" It's because I had a better guitar to play, and because I enjoy playing guitar. I also found that I could explore a whole lot of different hybrid tunings on guitar, and then mix and match them with conventional tunings and see how they sound together to create more textures. The more recent stuff, particularly the stuff with Ronan Skillen and the Deep South stuff, there's a lot of guitar texture on the album. We quite painstakingly recorded those guitars over quite a long period of time, just to make sure that they would represent as much of me, harmonically speaking, as I could get onto the album.

AAJ: Speaking of the guitar, you are a member of an extensive lineage of great South African guitar players. You described the Jazz artists of the Cape that you worked with as being highly individual, and it seems the same is true of South Africa's guitar players. If we think about you, Johnny Fourie, Tony Cox, Steve Newman, the Dyers brothers, Louis Mhlanga, among others, it truly is an astonishing range of guitar voices that developed in South Africa. What do you think drives that?

DL: There's a spirit that is prevalent amongst all the guitar players in this country, which is generated by the tradition. I think of aspiring young guitarists, like Guy Buttery, who is an absolute sweetheart. He's a great young player, one of the new young lions coming up. They're just indicative of the very soul of South Africa, which the guitarists in this country want to capture. I think Johnny was the king of this business in terms of Jazz guitar players, but there are some very incredible guitarists. They've all got something unique and they're all different from each other. I'm different from Tony who's different from Steve, who's different from Errol or Alvin or Johnny or Guy. The list goes on. I look around me all the time, and every time I go to a jam session or to the club I see a new guitarist, and they've all got their own thing!

There is a diversity, but it also appears to me that in the players, particularly those who play exclusively instrumental music in this country, you see unity. You see the unity of what has preceded and how people really feel about what it is that they write and what their intention is when they write it.


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