Murray on the bill as jazz stars conjure soundtracks and stories
The spirit of my favourite actor, Bill Murray, was at the two-day Cape Town International Jazz Festival late in March.
On the Friday, at about midnight, Murray’s spirit was in the Moses Molelekwa theatre where Brazilian singer-actor Seu Jorge presented The Life Aquatic with David Bowie. On Saturday afternoon it was in the Kippies hall with Ethiopian jazz veteran Mulatu Astatke.
Murray is known for surprising fans. He recently went to Fayetteville, Arkansas (population 73,580), where he popped into the Third Base Restaurant and Bar and ordered onion rings, fries and a hamburger with bacon and a fried egg, with no cheese. The restaurant is debating naming the burger after him, according to a local paper. Murray was happy to be photographed with the waiters.
The Cape Town Jazz Festival’s main operations person, Kaz Henderson, told me just before Jorge’s performance to meet her outside the venue at the end of the set. I had been bombarding her for days with text messages, e-mails and face-to-face pleading for an interview with the Brazilian super star.
I sat near the back of a packed venue, with a clear route to the exit. The stage was being prepared for the show, with its origins in the soundtrack of Wes Anderson’s comedy, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
The 2004 parody of, and homage to, oceanographer Jacques Cousteau featured Murray in the title lead and Jorge as a deckhand with a propensity to burst into David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese.
The lights dimmed to a magical oceanic blue. Seu (the abbreviation of the Brazilian senhor) Jorge, dressed in red knitted cap and sea foam-coloured overall, like his The Life Aquatic’s character Pelé dos Santos, strolled onto the stage, sat down and started strumming his orange guitar.
Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust it was, but it wasn’t. For a moment it was disorientating to hear a song I knew so well, but in Portuguese. Jorge’s interpretation was spot on. His deep, seductive and soothing voice is a mix of butterscotch, espresso, molasses and bourbon.
"It was 2003 in Rio. I was playing PlayStation Fifa on my day off. The phone keeps on ringing, but I don’t bother. It’s my day off," he told the audience.
"My ex-wife yells from the kitchen, ‘you’re lazy!’ She finally answers the phone and pulls a strange face. ‘It’s a guy, I think he’s American. He wants you to play Pele’."
Jorge thought this was a reference to the Brazilian football superstar. "I don’t play soccer, I tell her. I just play PlayStation.
"I go to the phone. ‘Is this Seu?’ It’s me, I say. ‘Do you know Bowie?’ I know him."
It was Anderson calling, and soon after that conversation, Jorge, his wife and their baby flew to Italy for six months to shoot the cult comedy movie.
"Anderson put me in funny clothes and says, ‘Play Rebel Rebel’." The jazz festival audience shrieked as he strummed the opening notes of the song.
Then he performed Starman, Rock n Roll Suicide, Space Oddity, Life on Mars and Suffragette City, all Bowie songs performed in Portuguese, but Jorge never got lost in translation.
Instead, he inhabited the songs musically, stylistically and, above all, emotionally.
The last notes of Five Years were still drifting through the air and I was on my feet heading out to wait for Henderson at our rendezvous point.
Jorge was stirring honey into a mug of tea when we sat on a two-seater black couch in his dressing room. Born Jorge Mario da Silva on June 8 1970, he grew up tough in Rio’s favelas. As an actor he became known to international film audiences via the powerful 2002 film City of God, about Rio’s slum gangs.
His deep conversational voice was as pleasingly mellifluous as his singing voice. He began with his relationship with Bowie, who died in January 2016. "Unfortunately, when I got the courage to approach him I discovered that he was sick. I waited for him to get better, but he passed away.
"He passed away three days before my dad — the same week." His expressive eyes shone. "And for this, I decided to do the tribute," he said.
His favourite Bowie song is Let’s Dance. "It has strong links to black music. The first time I saw its video I wondered: Is this guy white?
"When I grew up there was a lot of mixing in Brazil, but they were still separated by music. Rock ’n’ roll is for white people, pop and soul and samba is for black people."
The difference between other covers and Jorge’s versions is how he lives inside the Bowie songs.
"I tried to respect them – the messages, the vibe of the song. It’s just me and my guitar, and it is really hard if you don’t respect it first," he said.
He hummed Life on Mars. "It’s really beautiful, it’s simple, but the construction is very complex. I made it more acoustic, more jazzy blues. If you play with steel string it will be more folk, more rock ’n’ roll. I played with nylon strings … it made it more bossa nova."
Portuguese is not a huge global language but people recognise Bowie’s melodies and connect with Jorge’s renditions.
I told him about my feeling that Murray’s spirit was at the jazz festival. He smiled. Jorge got to know Murray quite well when they worked together.
"Murray is a genius, a good person, a very, very, very, very, very funny guy and such a professional," he said.
"In Italy we were working Monday to Saturday, with just Sunday to get a rest. My ex-wife decided to make a music video and invited him and Willem Dafoe to feature and they agreed. Back home the video won an award on MTV Brazil."
On the Saturday afternoon of the jazz festival in Cape Town, I felt the spirit of Murray again, this time in the Kippies hall.
Mulatu, the vibes and percussion player, looked like a recently retired grandfather in his grey suit, blue striped shirt, ring of grey hair and content smile as the pink light bathed over him and his band, Step Ahead.
Mulatu, 74, is the father of Ethiopian jazz — a beguiling mix of traditional Ethiopian music and western jazz — and has released a dozen influential albums.
Cult film director Jim Jarmusch said he conceived the character of Ethiopian immigrant Winston in his 2005 film, Broken Flowers, so he could use Mulatu’s Ethio-jazz.
The film features Murray in the lead, on a road-trip to track down a teenaged son who may be looking for him.
At the jazz festival the opening lines of Yekermo Sew (a man of experience and wisdom) had the audience roaring approval.
It was this song that introduced Mulatu to audiences outside Ethiopia.
The organisers of the Cape Town Jazz Festival could invite Murray to perform in 2019 – he has just released an album, New Worlds. However, it is a classical album (with cellist Jan Vogler, violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez, with Murray on vocals) and may be pushing the "jazz" bit of the festival a little too far. I won’t complain.