Jazz Manby Ts’eliso Monaheng / 23.08.2013
To listen to Shane Cooper is to will oneself to open up to the compositional capabilities of a modern jazz man, an electronic music impresario, and a collaborator of note. This might be his first solo outing, but those Shepherd-Naidoo-Babu collaborations shouldn’t be left hanging by the wayside. Whether bass string-pounding as part of the Kyle Shepherd trio (with Jono Sweetman on drums), or providing the low-end to Kesivan Naidoo’s ever-revolving band, The Lights, Cooper accentuates the groove with incredible pizzazz irrespective of the setting.
While some may debate the merits of a bank sponsoring the arts, a la Standard Bank through its Young Artist programme, it is worthwhile to note that cutting-edge art has been facilitated, especially in the jazz music category. Shane Cooper, the Young Artist for 2013, has assembled a band of music radicals who are currently in their prime to render life to his immaculate compositions. Bounce-heavy in some parts and restrained in others, the songs advance ideas which were birthed by the fathers of South African jazz – Mankunku, Ibrahim, Ngcukana, the list is endless. It also melds in influences from elsewhere, further proving that Cooper is unafraid to bend and amend as he sees fit. His compositional process alone is a work of wonder. I sat with him to chat about, among other things, the illustrious Carlo Mombelli’s involvement in the project.
Mahala: Jazz music is essentially collaborative in nature. You have been involved in a lot of collaborations, from Babu to Restless Natives, to the Kyle Shepherd trio. What do you take away from that collaborative process?
Shane Cooper: The first thing is learning different music from people. There are so many composers in the jazz idiom, and everyone’s got their own approach to writing and their own influences that they bring into it. Whenever I play with a new composer or bandleader, I’ll learn a lot about composition and arranging; new ideas that I can take for myself as a bass player and as a composer from the music. I can attribute a lot of thing that I’ve started doing in my own projects to being directly influenced from previous collaborations. Everything just informs further decisions that you might make; you learn from people and you learn from collaborations. I think that’s probably been the most important way that jazz musicians have learnt in the history of the music. And it’s beyond institutions, it’s really from playing with people, and it’s always been like that. If you look at all the great bandleaders in the history of jazz music, you look at a guy like Miles Davis. All of the musicians that he recruited – when he recruited them as newcomers, they would later go on lead their own bands and become quite prolific composers. They obviously took something from Miles, and Miles saw something in them; it’s just this thing that fed itself and kept growing.
You said before that you’d include a lot of your old compositions on this album. Did you write any new material for this project specifically?
There are three tunes on here that I’ve been playing for a little while. “Oriah” is the song that’s the oldest; it’s a song that I wrote on Zim Ngqawana’s farm, the Zimology Institue, many years ago. “Big sky” and “Dead letters” I’ve been playing for a little while now. The other tunes are very new, and I wrote them specifically for the band. When I was writing them I wanted the songs to reflect the kind of energy that these particular musicians – Kesivan, Bokani, Reza, and Justin – bring. I wrote the songs as vehicles to suit the players, because so much of the music in jazz is about improvisation. A lot of this material, when I sat there writing, I deliberately wrote sections to suit those players, and I deliberately thought of sections to suit certain guys for soloing in and things like that; melodies, the odd time signatures which I love[d] playing with Reza and Kesivan in [our] years in Babu together. So it was very much a bunch of music written for the players.
What comes first for you during the compositional process? Is it the melody, or the drumline? What’s your process?
It varies from song to song. A song like “Broken blues” started with a bassline. I co-wrote that song with Reza [Khota, guitarist]. I started with the bassline, took it to him, and we developed a melody together. A piece like “Dead letters”, I wrote on an old analogue synthesizer. I just came up with this melody that kind of evolves; it’s based on a simple theme that evolves and moves through different chords. A song like “Shadowplay” I wrote on an electric bass. I changed the tuning on the bass; down-tuned some of the strings and basically tried to write a structure on the bass without thinking about the theory of it. I changed the tuning and didn’t exactly ‘if I put my hands here, what chord would be’. So I moved my hands around and just found a whole bunch of chord sequences that made sense to me sonically, and continued to develop on that, and then I wrote the melody for that. That was just kind of putting myself in a place where I didn’t think about theory or common chord sequences and stuff like that. Funnily enough, when you look at the chord sequences, they are actually quite common, but I wouldn’t have probably come up with them if I hadn’t tuned the bass like that. And then a song like “Destination unknown”, I wrote a lot of that on the piano. “Drop down” I wrote that on the guitar.
It really varies from song to song. I’ll usually just sit down on an instrument and play and come up with the sketch and start writing it down on a piece of paper, and then loop it. I often record it onto my phone or onto my computer. If I write it on piano – I’m not a great piano player, so I’ll often write a basic thing on piano, record it, and then work on something on top of that; loop it around, then play something on top of that again. I write on bass guitar and piano, and I like writing on guitar and piano because I don’t play those instruments very well; it breaks me out of my comfort zone; it makes me think of different patterns. A song like “Dropdown”, I had different songs sketched out and I went back and looked at a whole bunch of things and chose a melody from one, and another melody from another one, and tried to combine them. They didn’t work, so I replaced one with another and basically combined all these melodies. If you listen to “Dropdown”, there are a bunch of different sections; it’s like a dropdown menu. It really just varies from song to song; sometimes it’s just a bassline and sometimes it starts with a melody.
We get the sense that you aren’t afraid to utilise available technology in order to help with your composition. Other jazz cats aren’t so keen on it. Why do you think that is?
A lot of the older guys I know come from a tradition where most of the writing is done with a piano and a pencil and a piece of paper, and I think that’s amazing! If that’s where they’re most comfortable, then that’s where [they’ve] gotta work. For me, I like to work like that, but I also feel very comfortable setting up some loops and putting things over it because that’s my generation, that’s my era. Whatever one feels most comfortable to work in as a platform, you’ve gotta do that. I know older guys who can write music without even sitting at the piano; they can just hear something in their head and sit with a piece of manuscript paper and write it out. And if you play it on the instrument, it sounds like they heard it, and that’s an amazing skill to have. A lot of younger guys are losing that because of the convenience of software and stuff like that where you can just record things in. Neither is better; at the end of the day, if you can get your ideas down as quickly as you can, that’s the most important thing.
How were the sessions for the recording of this project conducted?
We recorded them over three days. We went into studio at nine and we’d have coffee and warm up and get everything ready. [We’d] usually start at 10am and we’d go through til’ about six in the evening. We were basically tracking about three songs a day so that we could finish it in three days. By the final day, we got everything done by 7pm that night. The following week I prepared all the files to send over to the mixing engineer.
You spoke about being at Bra Zim’s farm. Can you speak a bit about his impact in your playing and general approach to music?
He was super-encouraging to everyone that was there during that time. It was myself, Nduduzo Makhathini, Ayanda Sikade, Kyle Shepherd…a lot of really great young players. He encouraged us all to write music as much as possible, do our own things, follow our voices. What I loved about his playing was he was always really committed to the music. For him it wasn’t a showbusinsess thing. He was really committed to the music and the energy of the music and the spiritual force that the music created for everyone playing it, and for the audience. You could really watch him travelling when he played. There was a certain amount of devotion and intensity and commitment that he gave to music everytime he played it. And I think that was probably the biggest influence on me from him, that devotion had had to music.
The album launched last night, How’d that go?
It was great. Just one long set of music. Then we had a deejay playing vinyl afterwards – mostly of African music. We had all the guys from the album, including Buddy Wells, featuring on some songs. And we sold some CDs.