Peter Auret: Turning the Tide

Seton Hawkins By

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Johannesburg-based Peter Auret is something of a renaissance man in jazz. A drummer, bandleader, recording engineer, founder of a record label, and entrepreneur, Auret has spearheaded an initiative to organize some of the city's most striking jazz talents into a musical collective centered around his label, Afrisonic Records.

Starting his career as a drummer in rock bands, and later earning international acclaim through his work with the Afro-Jazz ensemble Tsunami, Auret ultimately found his life's passion in jazz. Fronting the Peter Auret Trio, last year he celebrated the release of his debut album as a leader, Turn the Tide (Afrisonic, 2010). A moody, atmospheric album largely of original compositions, Turn the Tide helped to confirm Auret's reputation as a remarkable new talent in South Africa's jazz scene.

In addition to his own work, Auret has created a collective of local artists to promote through Afrisonic Records, and is planning to create a series of showcase concerts to further advance the scene. As South Africa's jazz industry continues to feel the loss of nearly all of its jazz clubs, Auret's vision may prove a viable way forward in developing platforms for creative artists to perform and showcase their works.

All About Jazz: While your work nowadays is focused heavily in jazz, originally you were a rock musician, correct?

Peter Auret: Yes, and I still play a fair amount of rock, based on the fact that I'm a full-time musician and perform freelance. But obviously my love is jazz and it's something that I got into after school. A lot of my friends were studying jazz at Pretoria Technikon—which is now called TUT [Tshwane University of Technology]—and they introduced me to it. I didn't like it at first, but it soon became my thing.

AAJ: Who were some of the first artists you heard then?

PA: The first jazz artist that I got into was Stanley Clarke—his older stuff, like Return to Forever. It had that jazz-rock vibe, which made it accessible to me. I also listened to artists like Herbie Hancock, who were working in jazz-funk. I didn't initially like straight-ahead swing—it didn't appeal to me. Then I heard a Mike Stern album called Standards (Atlantic, 1992), and I fell in love with it. At that point, I started playing with jazz artists, though I didn't really know what it was about. Now it's switched completely, and I hardly listen to rock music. In fact, jazz fusion isn't my first love anymore either.

AAJ: Although your band Tsunami performed in a fusion vein.

PA: Yes, definitely. The project was started as a collaboration between me and guitarist Max Mikula, who actually introduced me to that Mike Stern album. Max and I met as part of a backing band for a pop singer. At sound checks, we'd jam, and decided to do something together. We wanted to do improvised music with strong African roots, and so the band had a contemporary sound with pop elements, but also improvised elements.

AAJ: Concord Nkabinde played bass with this group, correct?

PA: He performed with us a few times, co-produced our second Tsunami album, From Clay (Gallo, 2004), and I think he played on two tracks. But he mainly did production. We've come a long way with Concord, as I've worked with him for nearly 10 years. I played on his first album, and his second album I mixed and recorded at my studio, Sumo Sound. He also just recorded a live DVD, and I did the mixes for that as well.

AAJ: How did you start working with experimental artists like Jonathan Crossley and Carlo Mombelli?

PA: Jonathan and I actually live in the same area, and we're about the same age. I was in my mid-20s when I met him, while we were playing in a jazz-funk band, and we decided to start doing more work together. But we also did freelance work together in backing bands for various artists. We used to play with a local saxophonist that worked the local club scene. I met a number of great musicians through that band, like Reza Khota, who now plays guitar for the band Babu. I learned a lot in that band, because we did swing and funk. It was a nice place to learn. From there, I progressed to working with Jonathan. I met Carlo Mombelli through Jonathan, and we've played together a number of times since then.

AAJ: Let's talk about your Afrisonic Label. The two releases— your album and saxophonist Kevin Davidson's Breathing Winston, Living John (Afrisonic, 2011)— seem to be a coming together of a number of paths in your career. You do recording and production work, you're running the label, and playing on the albums.

PA: What happened was I recorded my own album, Turn the Tide in 2009, having worked on it for a long time. It took me about a year before I released it, because I wasn't sure how to go about it. You see, when I was with Tsunami, we were signed to a major label, and they handled much of this.

With Turn the Tide, it was the perfect opportunity to create a channel and method that I could use to release any future records, and so I created this brand—I see it as a catalogue—with the idea being to record and promote musicians who wouldn't be recorded by the mainstream record companies. In South Africa, Afro Jazz is quite big, which is more like pop music with a bit of improvisation. So for me, I wanted to give artists an opportunity to play the jazz they wanted to play in the style they wanted to play it, without the pressure of producing an album that has to have massive commercial appeal. Through that, we could create a collective and DIY scenario—so if, for example, I make a breakthrough with my album, I can also pitch and promote Kevin's album Breathing Winston, Living John, or any other Afrisonic artist's album. That way, we truly empower each other to promote our music and reach more listeners, rather than the "every man for himself" attitude that exists within our local music circuits.

AAJ: Can you talk about how you formed your own trio, and also how you met Kevin Davidson?

PA: I met our pianist, Roland Moses, about six or seven years ago whilst working with a local jazz-fusion group called Absolute Zero. In that time, we became good friends and started performing together more frequently. He has always been one of my favorite piano players to work with, so when I decided to form this group he was the obvious choice. Roland has also been instrumental in helping to arrange my tunes, and his performance on the album took the songs much further than I could have ever imagined. Although I had played with bassist James Sunney before in pickup jazz bands, our working relationship really started about four years ago when we were both booked to work as the rhythm section for a popular South African rock band. We immediately hit it off both musically and socially. So I decided to put James and Roland together to feel out the tunes, and instantly realized that James's expressive musicality complimented Roland's fiery intensity. Since recording Turn the Tide, the trio has developed even more of a sonic identity and a synergy.

I've known about Kevin Davidson since I was 18. He's a lecturer at TUT and [has] a wealth of knowledge about jazz harmony and improvisation. I really got to know him while I was playing with Jonathan, and from time to time we'd perform together. I think it was in 2009, maybe 2010, when he booked me for some gigs. Roland Moses also lectures at TUT, and so he and Kevin are colleagues. We assembled on these gigs with Kevin, and while I was in the process of finalizing my own album, Kevin sent me a message after a concert saying, "It would have been incredible if we had recorded that!" I thought that this would be a great opportunity to record him and get this label going with another artist. We ended up recording Kevin's album in one day.

AAJ: Your album you did in four days, correct?

PA: Yes, we had more time with my album—not as much time as I would've liked, though, given the costs associated with rehearsing, recording, and mastering.

With Kevin's album, the charts were spectacular and clear, but there was still a challenge in coming to grips with his music. But we walked in and went for it. Sometimes you can hear some uncertainty, but as Kevin says, "It's got a sense of adventure."

AAJ: And it sounds like a live gig.

PA: That's essentially what it is. I was hoping that it would be more of a planned production, but Kevin has his own method. We are going to do a second album for Kevin, which is going to be a bit different. It'll be more of an intense funk-type project. I've also recorded an album for Roland, which features Pete Sklair on bass and Rob Watson on drums, who I think is one of the country's greatest talents. So it just needs to be mastered and then it'll be ready, and we'll release it through the Afrisonic label/collective.

AAJ: Regarding your own album, most of the songs are original compositions of yours, and quite ethereal in sound.

PA: Yes, it took me quite a few years to develop and select the music. I'm a drummer, and not formally trained as a jazz musician, so it took me a while to come up with the tunes. Roland and James interpreted the tunes and captured the mood I wanted perfectly. Obviously, I love the improvisation, but the tunes had to be strong and moody. It's not super complex, there's room for freedom and improvisation, but still strong melodies. That's what I was trying to go for—I don't know how memorable they are. I've also started working on new music, and that might even push further in this direction.

AAJ: How are you handling distribution as you drive this forward?

PA: I went to see a company called Maxplay SA, and they distributed to music stores like Look & Listen, which I think draws a stronger jazz crowd than [its competitor] Musica. So Maxplay distributes to these stores, and the owner agreed to take my album and Kevin's album. I also distribute through CDBaby, and they distribute throughout the world digitally. It may not move massive numbers of units, as they have a hell of a lot of artists, but I've already sold some records and had nice download activity. So I'm happy with that—my goal is to build my profile and promote my career and music.

AAJ: Like a business card?

PA: Yes, exactly. I've given a hell of a lot of the albums away. Most recently, I also got an email from a guy in Japan, who is an independent distributor, so he's taken on some albums too, and I think it's available throughout Japan. It's not something I would've thought would be an avenue, so the fact that it happened this way is quite cool for me. My hope is that I can now go over to Japan for performances.

I've done some shows with my group locally, but mostly they're gigs where we play standards and only a little bit of original material. The trouble with this country, and especially Joburg, is that there aren't set places to go and see jazz. I mean, you've got jazz in coffee shops and restaurants, but it's mostly standards. What I'd like to do is set up formal events, more like what's going on in the States. Our idea with the collective would be to book venues and showcase all our bands and our styles.

To the Afrisonic catalogue, we're also going to be recording guitarist Hugo de Waal, as well as saxophonist Joel Penner's band, The Trench Ensemble.

AAJ: Hugo sounds a great deal like seminal South African guitarist Johnny Fourie.

PA: Yes, Johnny was his mentor, and they were very close. Hugo is also quite different from the other local guitar players, and he stands by what he wants to do. Weirdly enough, he also plays in a heavy-metal band called Not My Dog. It's all made up of guys who studied at TUT under Johnny and Kevin, and that's sort of Hugo's commercial work. He loves jazz—it's his thing—but he's also got this band.

AAJ: Kind of like Alex Skolnick going from heavy metal to jazz.

PA: Yeah, I suppose we're all coming from different places. It's sort of like Brad Mehldau recording Radiohead or Soundgarden tunes—it's obviously music that speaks to him, and I don't think there's anything wrong with it.

So I think my plan now is to create these showcases—a lot of the musicians in the collective perform in more than one of the groups, which helps a lot. As far as international events go, we haven't taken any steps there yet. I've been overseas before, but with pop groups, which I think is easier. This is more niche, but I'm hoping to create a larger profile for myself and the other artists in this collective, so even if we get to play the dungeon stage at an international festival, that would still be great.

Selected Discography

Kevin Davidson Quintet, Breathing Winston, Living John (Afrisound, 2011)
Peter Auret Trio, Turn the Tide (Afrisound, 2010)
Concord Nkabinde, This Is My World (Drocnoc, 2006)
Tsunami, From Clay to Dust (Gallo, 2004)

Photo Credit
Page 1: Christo Doherty

Remaining Photos: Courtesy of Peter Auret

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