The Shape of Jazz to Comeby Andrei Van Wyk / Images by Hanro Havenga / 29.09.2011
Jazz can go either way. It can be relaxing, as soft notes run wild through your head, or it can be an exercise in musical masturbation that stains the air. Despite the appeal, the entire genre seems to have stagnated somewhat and many who define themselves as “jazz musicians” seem satisfied to end up playing jazz standards in run down bars, or providing musical wallpaper for upmarket steak restaurants in Johannesburg. But jazz is beyond reproach, like forbidden fruit for music critics. And while musicians such as Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus, and South African virtuosos like Carlo Mombelli and Marcus Wyatt are untouchable, it’s their innovation in the genre that sets them apart from the overall state of modern jazz which has become a dumbed down, ersatz version of the genre’s older, nobler forms. Today, the jazz scene is like a museum where most revel the past glories and have little faith in the releases of today. But slowly musicians are re-discovering the old forms, abandoning Kaya FM’s brand of ‘lover’s jazz’ and taking a step back. The Skabengas are one such unit. Embracing the past and repackaging it positively, and trying to hand it out to a younger audiences.
Cigarette smoke floats in the light breeze. Wolves is in an easy mood tonight; gentle words and subtle laughter glide between the tables. The food on other tables looks tempting and the expensive beer is, as always, intoxicating. The drunks in the corner sway to the chillwave jumping from the speakers, contrasting even against the anticipation the jazz to come. It is not as packed as the regular Howl Thursdays. Cigarette trading hipsters and high heel fashionistas abide. Owners Shane, in his Surfer Blood shirt, and Angie, with her hair tied back, run around with empty beer bottles and dirty plates.
Soon the group of small, sincere musicians come on with a shy tinge but a covert virtuosity. Skabenga, literally meaning “rascal” in isiZulu, hints at their appearance. A bare-footed trumpeter, a big lead singer in a Hawaiian shirt and an “old school” jazz bassist playing an electronic upright. I watch from the merch shelf on the side as they get ready. They burst into ears, but only about ten people are paying attention. Others sit with their red velvet cakes and Americanos talking over the music. The frenetic drumming hints at a mix of Buddy Rich and Thomas Pridgen which keeps a steady beat drowned in complex polyrhythms while the thumping hard bop influenced bass mingles with the drums creating a solid, almost perfect, rhythm section. The crowd is suddenly involved, dancing, hands waving and feet imitating a vague Charleston. This is a really fun band.
The Reinhardt influenced guitar delivers a Gypsy jazz twang. The instrumentation is indicative of the band’s virtuosity, but the singer’s voice remains, for a lack of a better word, ‘annoying’. He attempts a Tom Waits’ growl mixed with a Don Von Vliet energy but it fails to captivate. The accentuation of each word sounds artificial, his stage persona seems forced. The trumpet, though highly skilled, strikes as kind of premeditated and a bit repetitive. The audience doesn’t seem to mind, or understand. And maybe that’s the whole point. The Skabengas are a perfect example of a common current in the Johannesburg music scene. A group of really talented musicians who instead of forging a new direction, hold onto genres of the past and place all the emphasis on being “vintage”. The Skabengas carry the same mindset of Bitches Brew era Miles Davis. They are far from innovative. Unlike Carlo Mombelli’s textural Sound design or John Zorn’s thrash metal take on free jazz, they don’t push any boundaries or place a dilemma in anyone’s hands. Their appeal is designed for non-jazz audiences. And yet, there was an intensity in the performance which leapt out and entertained this crowd.
That intensity dies with the final trumpet note. The couple making out in the corner pack it in and go home, others drag their legs in drunken stumbles. The smell of exhaled beer fogs the windows. The cars outside disperse one by one while the waiters clean up the tables, the band packs up and the silence takes over.
*All images © Hanro Havenga.