In the view of vocalist Ranee Lee, "Jazz is like a tree going through the seasons: there are times in which the leaves die and fall away and the tree goes to sleep and times when it flourishes and grows."
Lee, born in New York and resident in Canada, is one of the final names to be added to the roster for the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, at the Sandton Convention Centre from September 15-17.
The concerts are spread across stages in the venue; it’s worth consulting the lineup information in advance and plan, to maximise the music you hear and minimise the trips up and down the centre’s often crowded escalators.
This is a golden year for vocalists at Joy of Jazz. As well as Lee, other transatlantic voices include Deborah J Carter, Dwight Trible (who made a powerful impression last year) and José James. James, already an established name in hip-hop and R&B, built a new audience in 2015 with his classic Billie Holiday tribute for Blue Note: Yesterday I Had the Blues.
From SA, the list is encyclopedic and covers all the recent eras of popular song, with Judith Sephuma, Lira, Lindiwe Maxolo, Ringo Madlingozi, Nomfundo Xaluva and Max-Hoba.
There are also two new names from the rest of Africa. Reviewers have attached labels ranging from "folky" to "soulful" to the output of Dutch-Cameroonian Ntjam Rosie, while the UK Guardian’s Robin Denselow calls Ethiopian Ester Rada’s songs distinctive because of "how they switch from Western-influenced vocals to brassy instrumental passages that use the modal structures of Ethio-jazz".
In addition, Standard Bank Young Artist for jazz, trombonist/vocalist Siya Makuzeni, will provide a reprise of her roof-raising Grahamstown set, which many hailed as the performance of the festival.
For fans of the human voice, all this provides an embarrassment of riches. However, those seeking instrumental improvisation may find that line-up rather less diverse.
Instrumentalists are predominantly well-respected South Africans, many of whom are regularly heard in Johannesburg or Cape Town: reedmen Barney Rachabane and Moreira Chonguica; trumpeter Feya Faku; and guitarist Billy Monama with an ensemble including his equally formidable veteran counterpart, Themba Mokoena. Again, there is a welcome injection of pan-Africanism, this time from Senegalese bassist Alun Wade, who has worked both as a sideman in popular Senegalese bands, and in more adventurous avant-garde projects, for example with Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel.
Two American instrumentalists — both drummers; one younger, one a veteran — are likely to surprise and delight the jazz appreciation society fundis who are often the festival’s most discriminating audience members. Kendrick Scott describes his sound as led by "groove – it’s all about silence versus sound", and his childhood grounding was in church music.
However, none of his albums has been content to rest on that solid traditional foundation. His third outing with his quintet Oracle, the 2015 We Are The Drum, led Jazz Times to comment: "Plenty of drummers can play sensitively, but few can play explosively and make it feel sensitive. That’s one of Kendrick Scott’s considerable gifts ..."
The veteran is the legendary percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Kahil El’Zabar, bringing his Ritual Trio, and it is in this company that Trible returns. The Chicago-born multi-instrumentalist has worked with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since the 1970s and has served as that organisation’s chairman. His was one of the prominent voices in George Lewis’s AACM history, A Power Stronger Than Itself, and was also the subject of the 2013 documentary Be Known.
Jazz Times called the Ritual trio’s 2014 recording Follow the Sun (which featured Trible): "deep-rooted ancestral wisdom carried into the present and beyond ... along with hard-won spiritual transcendence".
For audiences compelled by the visionaries of black music, next week offers more than El’Zabar and the other sounds on the Joy of Jazz stages.
Greg Tate — cultural commentator, poet, musician and former senior writer at the Village Voice — is also visiting SA in a tour organised by Gallery Momo and curated by writer Bongani Madondo. Tate has written extensively on musicians, including James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson. He was set to speak at the Cape Town Open Book Festival this Friday, and at several Johannesburg events, including the Jo’burg Art Fair and a lecture at the Goethe-Institut on September 13.