Few descriptions of music events have proved more contentious than the label “jazz festival”. Fans of improvised sounds regularly object to the presence of other genres on the bill, drawing from devotees of other sounds the charge that they are behaving like a “jazz police”. (The late Leonard Cohen’s metaphor dates from 1988 in Canada, which indicates how far in time and geography these spats stretch.)
With an event as large as the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) – whose first 2017 line-up announcement was on November 22 – the genre argument is usually lost before it begins. CTIJF draws around 37,000 attendees every year and reported for 2016 an injection of close to R62m in direct spend to the Cape Town economy. No single genre could achieve that scale of attendance or revenue in SA, where niche audiences are relatively small.
Another complication, of course, is the elasticity of the jazz label. From Louis Armstrong’s oft-quoted “If you have to ask [what it means] you’ll never know”, through Wynton Marsalis’s somewhat retro “When the bass-man plays four to the floor, that’s what we call jazz”, to the Urban Dictionary’s idealistic “Jazz is the only truth left in music”, even fundis find it hard to achieve consensus.
The 2017 line-up seems to have negotiated the genre tightrope well with its first batch of names – as it should be able to do after 17 iterations. The event’s besetting sin has sometimes been nostalgia, a trend that reached its nadir with the well-past-sell-by-date SWV in 2016. By contrast, the 2017 edition will showcase cutting-edge music in all genres, a great deal that defies easy categorisation, and some potentially intriguing collaborations.
Pleasing the jazz police next year will be easy. Heading the visiting team is US saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa with the quintet that created the multiply-awarded 2015 Bird Calls. That album paid homage to the music of Charlie Parker not by covering the Bird canon but by drawing oblique inspiration for new music from elements within it, occasionally spiced by the kind of traditional ornamentation the reedman derives from his study of Indian music. Equally popular is likely to be another award-winner, vocalist Gretchen Parlato, who has been credited by critics with “refiguring jazz singing in the 21st century”. Fresh and boundary-challenging in similar yet also very different ways is Standard Bank 2016 Young Artist for Jazz, vocalist/trombonist Siya Makuzeni. Like Parlato, Makuzeni cares about the contents of a song, and interprets the narrative through intelligent phrasing and wordless vocalese. Makuzeni’s vocalese draws deeply on both SA (especially the Eastern Cape) and on digital grooves.
Her presence signals an equally strong and challenging SA contingent. There are three great trumpeters: Capetonian Darren English, the youngest artist yet to be signed to top Atlanta label Hot Shoe; Mandla Mlangeni with the Tune Recreation Committee and guest Mark Fransman; and Marcus Wyatt in a collaboration with Indian violinist Deepak Pandit and one of John McLaughlin’s favourite drummers, Ranjit Barot. The group Skyjack combine the talents of Swiss tenorist Marc Stucki and trombonist Andreas Tschopp with those of three award-winning South Africans: bassist Shane Cooper, drummer Kesivan Naidoo and pianist Kyle Shepherd. From an earlier generation comes trombonist Jonas Mosa Gwangwa, a veteran who relies on his deep musical imagination and powerful compositions, rather than mere nostalgia, to keep his audiences loyal. Finally, Mozambique-born saxophonist Moreira Chonguiça teams up with veteran Manu Dibangu to explore the roots and shoots of pan-African jazz.
It’s when we get to the middle ground sometimes labelled fusion or world jazz that the jazz police begin to get hot and bothered. But even fusion these days isn’t what you think it is. Producer/keyboardist Taylor McFerrin and drummer Marcus Gilmore present something that riffs on hip-hop, beatboxing, jazz and soul to create a unique, sensuous, and often surprisingly witty sound-world.
SA guitarist Ernie Smith draws on both African and gospel inspirations. Closest to conventional fusion is the American outfit Jazz Funk Soul with saxophonist Everette Harp, keyboard player Jeff Lorber and, for this outing, guitarist Paul Jackson Jr, whose highly contemporary edge (he contributed to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memory) is likely to update a potentially over-familiar musical feel.
The surprise for SA audiences is likely to be Latin Grammy-winning Argentine ensemble Escalandrum. Their world jazz re-visioning of tango skips between historic clave rhythm patterns and fiery, risk-taking improvisation – imagine an Argentine analogue of Dudu Pukwana’s Zila. Escalandrum is led by Daniel “Pipi” Piazzolla, grandson of the creator of tango nuevo, Astor Piazzolla, and they are not the only festival guests with a dynastic feel: McFerrin is the son of vocal artist Bobby McFerrin; Gilmore the grandson of legendary jazz drummer Roy Haynes.
For many of the other acts announced, genre debates are irrelevant. British singer Laura Mvula crafts popular songs with interesting stories to tell that sound easy on the ear but have intriguing structures. American R&B group En Vogue pioneered New Jill Swing and are vocal craftswomen par excellence. Audiences may hear familiar and well-loved sounds, but quality will not be in question. The Soweto String Quartet have never failed to enchant; The Rudimentals have a solid, intensely loyal Cape Town fan base; Judith Sephuma might present anything from scatting, to gospel, to the warm African rhythms of her recent album One Word – but she will still have the crowd in the palm of her hand.
Finally, we should not forget that conservatism can pervade any genre, even the newest. In past years, the hip-hop stage in Cape Town has been largely populated by male artists and sometimes heteronormative – if not downright sexist – words. In 2017, that stage will resound to the beats of Capetonian performer, educator and gender activist Dope Saint Jude.
Cape Town International Jazz Festival will be held at the International Convention Centre on March 31 and April 1 2017