With 40 acts across five stages, there’s a lot of music going on at this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

And yes, we know, fans sometimes complain that the festival’s scope means the consequent dilution of the event’s jazz purity. Programming in some past years offered justification, but the gripe also rests on a misconception: jazz was never a pure music constrained by a single definition. However it is defined, the musical genre is very present in 2018. Here’s our must-see list across types and tempos:

In the beginning

Those seeking jazz roots will find them on every stage and under multiple genre labels. Vibes player and musicologist Mulatu Astatke, the father of Ethio-jazz, argues that the ancient sounds of East Africa contributed significantly to what he calls "the science of music" that experimental jazz players are still exploring today.

Southern Sounds

The Big Easy is everywhere. Trumpeter and trenchant social critic Nicholas Payton applies the musical imagination of New Orleans to the modern sounds of the black diaspora; fellow New Orleans alumni Trombone Shorty and trumpeter Christian Scott bring it to funk and hip-hop respectively. The dynamic Tarriona Ball, leader of Tank and the Bangas, even infuses it into slam-poetic flows.

Homegrown vibe

For SA jazz, consult guitarist Billy Monama’s Grazroots, a cross-generational project encompassing veteran fellow guitarist Themba Mokoena, new-generation trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana and reedman McCoy Mrubata. There are tributes to late trumpeter Hugh Masekela and late Stimela frontman, guitarist Ray Chikapa Phiri. Then there’s the Liberation Project, whose line-up (Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse, pianist Tony Cedras, bassist Aus Tebza "Groove Queen" Sedumedi, Roger Lucey and more) will recall the sounds of the 1980s and 1990s for many. Finally, trumpeter Feya Faku’s compositions always draw inspiration from the jazz wellspring of the Eastern Cape: as important to modern SA jazz as New Orleans was to the American kind.

The new wave

Impressive album releases are reflected by the younger SA artists who will appear, including: singer Nicky Schrire; bassist Shane Cooper’s Mabuta; guitarist Keenan Ahrends; reedman Sisonke Xonti’s Iyonde; and pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. Among the visitors, Miles Mosley brings a fresh ear to bass-led, highly imaginative groove (as he says ironically on Uprising: "Thank God for me/ Ain’t nothing been funky since ’73"). Masego — the Virginia resident who found his stage-name in a Setswana dictionary — introduces the festival to Trap House jazz or "Trazz", though his mixes sometimes hark back to Cab Calloway too. R+R=Now unites Christian Scott with Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Derrick Hodge, Taylor McFerrin and more for another genre-defying collaboration.


The five stages don’t offer equal sound quality: the giant Kippies is often plagued by disturbingly cotton-wool acoustics; the outdoor Manenberg suffers if high winds blow the sound away. Most of the music mentioned here happens on stages where the sound is usually good: Molelekwa and the all-seated Rosies, for which a supplement is charged.

The performances likely to bring classic jazz and the shock of the new together most powerfully are the festival closers on that Rosies stage. On Friday, pianist and scholar Vijay Iyer presents the sextet featured on his acclaimed 2017 release Far From Over. On Saturday, an icon of international free-jazz drumming, Louis Moholo leads a quintet comprising pianist Kyle Shepherd, bassist Bryden Bolton, trombonist/vocalist Siya Makuzeni and reedmen Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Abraham Mennen. Though of different origins and generations, the two leaders have a lot in common. Both see jazz as the music of freedom. Both locate themselves within the tradition, while rejecting narrow definitions of it. Both combine thoughtful emotion and jagged risk-taking, and both bring equally fearless improvisers with them. There’s much other music — including artists not mentioned here — on offer, but whatever you do, don’t miss these.

The festival takes place on March 23 and 24 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. For more info visit capetownjazzfest.com