In Johannesburg, South Africa, spring is in the air as the Joy of Jazz Festival, now in its 21st year, resumed its obligation to increase spring’s thermometer by bringing in yet another incredible list of international artists who brought the Celsius to its boiling point and people to their feet during the three-day jazz festival (Sept. 27-Sept. 29).
As Mayor Herman Mashaba of Johannesburg stated, “What better place to have a jazz festival than in the heart of this great city, where music is a part of our life.”
How does one choose while in a major part of the motherland where this music began with just the beat of the drum, rhythms of indigenous instruments and the unique voices of many dialects interacting across the continent?
Well, opening night was easy with the Horn Summit, an all-star tribute to the trumpeter, composer and human rights activist Hugh Masekela. Their repertoire included his hits and lesser known compositions that spanned his sparkling six-decade career. The large ensemble featured previous band members from over the years that included trumpeter Sidney Mavundia, flugelhornist Lwanda Gogwana, vibraphonist Ngwako Manamela and vocalists Suthukazi Arosi, Pu2ma Tiso and Complete (a dynamic acappella group), who at times reminded me of Take 6, but their African rhythmic flow was paramount.
When visiting and exploring Africa’s music tree, we witness and enjoy its similarities and differences, but more important we feel it in our bones.
The ensemble played everything from “I Want to be There,” to “Part of a Whole” from Masekela’s “Home Is Where the Music Is” (1972), to the heavy harmonized vocals of “Stimela,” about brothers taking the train to work in the coal mines for months at a time, to his worldwide hit “Grazing in the Grass.” As the band acted out on solos and in improvisational unison, still pictures appeared on the large screens of Masekela in various stages of his life, including his New York City marriage to Miriam Makeba in 1964. Masekela’s spirit was in the house jamming with his protégées.
Next up on the Dinaledi Stage was the vocalist who has always had her own voice, Cassandra Wilson. The USA homegirl reconstructed the well-traveled standard “You Go to my Head” into an up-tempo tune. A redirection that only Wilson would think of, and making it work is her magic. Her smoky timbre, the way she speeds phrases or slows them down at her improvisational will, is her way of enticing audiences into her daring web.
Seeing her in any setting is always a treat because every appearance is another exploration. Her fine-tuned group included longtime collaborator bassist Lonnie Plaxico, guitarists Kelvyn Bell and Melvin Sewell, pianist John Cowherd and drummer John Davis.
The evening ended with the saxophonist David Sanborn, who went into a swinging up-tempo “For You” and “Nica’s Dream,” followed by a variety of his many hits that went deeper into smooth jazzville.
One of the festival highlights was the Nairobi Horns from Kenya. Their ingredients include a healthy mix of music from the streets of Kenya. “Our sound is an African groove from our localities, the sound of Africa,” said the trumpeter, leader and founder of the group, MacKinlay Mutsembi.
Nairobi Horns, a trio that started two years ago, consist of his friends saxophonist Rabai Mokua and trombonist Victor Kinama. For major shows such as this one they add congas, bass, guitar, drums and keyboards. They write their own music and believe in getting the crowd up and dancing as they did the evening they performed.
“I grew up listening to hip-hop, jazz, Afro-Cuban, classic brass band and African music,” said Mutsembi. “When I first heard Freddie Hubbard, I flipped. What a sound! Our music reflects all of this.” They played an original, “Mr. Masekela,” by the trumpeter and a Latin-tinged funk tune by Carlos Santana, and the rest were jump-up dance African soul tunes.
“This is a thrilling opportunity to be here,” said Mutsembi.
One of the most outrageous performances of the festival was Buika, an exciting, fiery flame that burns with the spirits of Celia Cruz and Tina Turner. For the two nights she performed (the closing act Saturday night), there were serious cult fans who knew every Spanish song.
She has a forceful, dusty voice and sings with an urgency of passion. Her band included two guitars, a trombone and keyboards.
“The trombone is a lonesome instrument like me but it stands out,” said Buika. Her original “Please Don’t Go” was set in raga tone with the trombone leading as she belted out those fiery notes. “You Will Be Mad” was dedicated to all the lovers who stay out late.
Buika, who uses just her surname, is Maria Concepcion Balboa Buika and was born in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. During our brief interview by the pool she noted, “When I was growing up, people told me I had no future. I was a disaster of a person and I believed that. But one day my aunt came to my house looking for someone to sing. My sister didn’t want to, so I did. After I finished singing, I loved the applause and decided that those people who said I was bad were wrong.”
She has collaborated with Me’shell Ndegeocello, Chucho Valdés, Chick Corea and Pat Metheny. Her eighth album, entitled “Vivir Sin Miedo” (2015) was the first album containing her own compositions sung in English and Spanish. Buika will be performing in New York City in the coming months. Don’t miss out.
Diane Shuur is the other seasoned American vocalist and pianist who gave a stunning performance. It is a welcomed sight to see a musician who can offer witty one-liners as well as great music. She wasted no time performing standards such as “Watch What Happens,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “The Very Thought of You” and “Here’s That Rainy Day,” which was a jazz smoker, with Shuur holding that note until the very end. Her esteemed accompanists were saxophonist Don Braden and drummer Kendall Kay.
Wazimbo & Banda Kakana from Mozambique partnered as vocalists to add another swinging groove. “Mozambique is full of rhythms influenced from this and that,” stated Kakana. “It is a fusion of world music.” Their music is marrabenta, a rhythm that emerged out of colonial segregation. It is a conversation between the old and new generations of Mozambique. Marrabenta is the story of a country’s identity. “Our music is everything that is good,” stated Wazimbo. As a composer, he wrote the music for a Microsoft television commercial a few years ago. They have been together for two years, and the five-piece band offers cultural conversation with a swing force not to be denied.
Brooklyn’s own Bilal, by way of Philadelphia, has been breaking the mode since his arrival, and here in Joburg it was no different. He set the tone by wearing a Zulu head band. The audience loved it, and from there he got down to business as the neo-soul jazz man, or should we just call it good music from a young man, refusing the concept of boundaries.
The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All-Star Band brought the heart and soul of New Orleans to Joburg. The all-star lineup are all leaders and composers in their own right: the group’s leader and trombonist/vocalist Wycliffe Gordon, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Courtney Bryan, bassist Reginald Veal, saxophonist Roderick Paulin and drummer Herlin Riley.
Although Gordon is the only non-New Orleanian in the band, we did not hold that against him because his gravelly voice was so close and hip to “Pops” Armstrong. The band was so hot dancing became mandatory because your feet couldn’t stop moving. Payton’s solo of “Star Dust” was like an insane dream full of chocolate kisses.
Keep close watch on Bryan. This young lady can play piano, and with that New Orleans touch she is no joke. “I was honored to be in such great company,” the young pianist noted.
How could one visit the Joy of Jazz and not see Letta Mbulu, the African Queen of Song. Her musical contribution and significance to South Africa and the world can never be overemphasized. Her songs are standards in the great South African songbook. Her solos or up-tempo tunes offer hope and resilience. She also enjoys a good party that ignited a dancing force among her many fans.
The two classical oriented groups swinging with a studious hipness featured the duo pianist Carl Fredrik Orrje (born in Sweden) and bassist Kengo Nakamura (born Osaka, Japan), who has performed with Wynton Marsalis and Cyrus Chestnut. Together they pursue classical elements that take us on jazz excursions that inter-connect into a new hipness that swings like that beatnik thing—Yeah cool, daddio, deep.
The other pianist on the classical swing journey was Amina Figarova (born in Baku, Azerbaijan), now residing in Brooklyn, N.Y. She applied luminous melodies that fly and descend into soothing harmonies. Catch her in New York. The young pianist Bokani Dyer, raised in Joburg, has a great touch and loves to swing high jazz notes to melodic ballads. Hopefully at some point he will make the NYC jazz scene.
Listen. So much music—soooo little time. Joburg breathes music, the roots of jazz whistles in the breeze, tickles little kids’ ears as they eat ice cream and dances in the dreams of aspiring young musicians. Next year is another exciting exploration of the Joy of Jazz. Try to make it over.