A case in which the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Jannie "Hanepoot van Tonder's Biggish Band from South Africa isn't the most impressive ensemble I've heard recentlynot by a long shotwhile the soloists on Salt & Vinegar
are as a whole unexciting, the sound for the most part less than adequate. Even so, the music is irresistible, and I've seldom been more enthralled while listening to a big band album for the first time. I'd love to hear these charts played by a first-class American ensemble.
Van Tonder formed the Biggish Band about five years ago to perform the indigenous music of South Africa. The musicians are by and large non-professionals who play for their own pleasure, but that's not necessarily a stumbling block. Salt & Vinegar, the band's first recording, van Tonder writes, "was done in a limited time with limited resources ... but what it might lack in technical correctness, it certainly makes up for with pure 'pluck' and commitment, displaying "the kind of energy one only finds in this sort of independent entity, which exists purely for the sake of itself. In other words, the Biggish Band is having a ball, and if you happen to like what it's doing, that's fine too.
Everything on the album was written by South Africans with three colorful compositions by trumpeter Douglas Armstrong ("Waiting for Phoebe, "Dynamo, "Rio de Quesos") and one each by van Tonder ("Salt & Vinegar ), Merton Barrow ("Blue Prints ), David Ledbetter ("Stywepap en Bredie ), Errol Dyers ("Langery ) and the legendary Zakes Nkosi ("Nonto Sangoma ). Whatever the tempo, stalwart rhythms are the order of the day, explicitly underlining the band's purpose on every number. Drummer Ted Frazer is a tireless workhorse, complemented at times by percussionist Keith Coxon (a standout on "Rio de Quesos ).
Salt & Vinegar was recorded earlier this year for a well-behaved and appreciative audience at Cape Town's Nassau Centre. While Hanepoot's Biggish Band may seem ungainly by our standards, due credit must be given for its tenacity and enthusiasm. Yes, the band has a way to go, but van Tonder has it on the right track, and five or ten years down the road one should hear an appreciable change for the better. Until then, we can enjoy this rough yet consistently engaging souvenir of contemporary big band jazz from South Africa.