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.
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