Featuring Q&A-style interviews with indie and iconic jazz artists. Debbie is the author of "GLISSANDO: A Story of Love, Lust and Jazz" (Waldorf Publishing, February 2018) -and- "The Poconos In B Flat, The incredible jazz legacy of the Pocono Mountains."
Jazz embraces everything a piano has to offer. It combines interesting chord harmonies, rhythms, and allows total creative freedom. While this might sound liberating, it can be overwhelming especially if you are just starting out.
There’s a big difference between acoustic and digital instruments. They sound and feel different and your experience on each instrument will greatly influence how you perform.
With the acoustic, you will get a nice, full sound. This will particularly affect how your chords will sound. Digital instruments, on the other hand, offer tonality across the notes because of their build.
Begin by learning the language of music: chords and scales and how they are applied. Scales are the foundation of jazz music. Once you can play all the major scales, you are ready to go onto the major and minor triads. This will help you build up to the rich sound that comes from the 7th chords.
You’ll also need to learn the intervals between notes (and how to differentiate between half and whole step intervals) to understand chord progressions; and to understand the space between the notes to create melodies.
Step 2: Be Creative
Improvisation is one of the most important aspects of playing jazz. There are two types of improvisation.
You can go with literal improvisations, where you come up with your own riffs and rhythms. There’s also implied improvisation, where the music you play is written to sound as if it’s improvised.
If you choose to go with the literal improvisation, start by changing the rhythm. For example, you can take a simple quarter note melody and turn it into a complex jazz tune by adding notes, syncopation and playing with dynamics.
You can add a 5th note to the 7th sound to form a 9th chord, creating new sounds with more complex chords. While this might sound demanding, it’s actually very simple to learn. All you need to do is pick your scale and remember the key signature to form your foundation chord.
Step 3: Add the Voicing
To complement the melody and create extra style, you can add voicings to your music by, for example, changing the structure of your chord. Use inversions in chord charts for new voicings. This enables you to take the notes of the chords and restructure them.
Let’s say you have a chord of 1-3-5-7 and you want to add voicings to sound better. We can change that to 3-5-7-1.
Step 4: Practice
To help you out as you’re learning, find a jazz chord chart such as this one. You can even download software that will guide you on the chords to familiarize you as you practice.
Meyer (we only learn his first name deeper into the book) is filled with dread…and jazz. A modern, midlife anti-hero who has a complicated, messed-up family situation, Meyer (a divorced alto sax musician) grapples with the meaning of life while ruminating over his many mistakes. Time and again, though, his most cherished friendships save him: with an Iranian psychiatrist (the poison-tipped insults they swap are outrageously guffaw-worthy, to say the least); with an unflappable brother-in-jazz and trust-fund baby who’s all grown up (sort of); and of course with his alto. Trying to unwrap the enigma of women and understand why he gets burned so often on gigs, Meyer is a bit of a sad sack. But although he often falls flat on his face, he ultimately and in unexpected ways (semi-spoiler alert) gets it right.
There is perhaps one of the absolute best descriptions in contemporary literature of losing oneself while playing music; Sidley crafts several superbly rendered passages about jazz improvisation that authenticates him as an author who has lived with, in and for music. This book is a treat for many reasons, but for the music lover, it truly resonates. On Amazon here.
The funk sizzles out of the stratosphere with Noe Carmichael, AKA Saucy Lady. Her latest LP SUPANOVA mashes funk, hip hop, nu disco and more, bending genres into high-octane dance beats while keeping a jazz backbone.
The title track “Supanova” is breathy and ethereal. You want so much to settle in. But without warning you’re taking a quick exit to a hot, full-brass sound with horns tight in unison and an unshakeable hook. Add the organ’s jumpy syncopation and flecks of sax and you have a spacey mélange. “Rocket Science” has fat and wide bass groove where Saucy Lady’s vocals lay on top with bullseye-perfection: light, sweet and melodic. “Calling Jupiter” proves she can scat like a pro. A soaring flute and wailing electric guitar add even more textural interest. Slightly askew yet friendly and accessible, this album is fun and daring.
How did you find your musical sass?
Through allowing music to take me on an emotional journey and letting it flow through my body. Since childhood this is how I experienced music.
What was your first public performance like?
First performance was when I was 5 at my piano recital. I don’t remember it but from what I heard from my family I had played confidently.
So from disco to funk/jazz. What has that journey been like?
I’ve been going cross genres since day one. My first album had bossa nova, hip hop, funk, to disco vibes and this sophomore album has more elements of jazz funk mixed in with boogie, soul, and nu disco. I want to continue to incorporate the diverse sounds that I’m inspired by daily into the music I create. Jazz funk is where I’m heavily leaning towards at the moment because of its musical sophistication beyond a typical funk/pop arrangement, and there is an abundance of potential for getting experimental and unapologetically spacey.
How does your cultural background inform your songwriting?
I think it’s natural that your heritage is heard all over the music you create. With songwriting and lyrics it’s based on either my own experience or others that have impacted me. As long as I live in this time, you’ll hear the people, location, and culture I’m surrounded by in my lyrics, harmonies, and arrangements that I create.
Talk about your new album. What’s it all about?
The theme is space. Space is infinite and there are so many mysteries around it so it naturally gets our creative mind flowing. When you can visualize it in your mind, the imagination can go wild. This is the case with the music too, and it allows me to become experimental and push boundaries.
I was also inspired to work with this theme from the music I grew up listening to, like Sun Ra, for example. His Arkestra was formed around the philosophies of the cosmos and I’ve always been fascinated.
Which tracks have been the most difficult or challenging to produce and why?
There are 10 tracks. The most challenging tracks to produce were the ones that have live instruments, especially drums. There were a few of those tracks and mixing can take time. There’s a lot to balance.
How has your voice developed from when you launched your career?
It’s changed a lot. There’s more character in my voice, and with the new album the music is more focused and cohesive overall. There’s a central common theme, which is space, with every song. They’re all threaded together as one collection.
What do you find most exciting about performing music?
I get to transmit the ecstatic emotions that I have from the music that I’ve created. Also being seen on stage, I am able to show what I’ve visualized in my head with the clothing I wear.
I get excited when I know I have the opportunity to make everyone feel good and transport them to another dimension. I want them to transition to that world with me!
Where is your home base and name your favorite clubs there?
My home base is Boston, Massachusetts. My favorite party spots are Brass Union in Somerville where I DJ, and the Sinclair on Saturday nights where there’s an all-soul music night called Soulelujah. I also enjoy the new bar that’s popped up in my neighborhood in Quincy, called Idle Hour. It’s got a touch of 80s interior design, and I dig that.
Where in the world would you most like to perform?
Anywhere fun in Europe! I’d love to perform at a spot that is open to hearing my kind of jams.
How have you launched this LP?
It’s been released on vinyl. I performed the songs in early April at the Institute of Contemporary Art and I’ll be making presence on various radio shows. I’m going to see where this takes me from there. People have asked me to perform in various locations, so we’ll see.
How did the other musicians bring this project to life?
The production was a collaborative effort between myself and Yuki (“U-KEY”) Kanesaka aka Monolog. He played most of the synths and drums, and we worked together to create drum sample sequencing and musical arrangements. He also did the mix.
The mastering was done by my go-to guy Tom Waltz at Waltz Mastering. We recorded with drummer J-Zone on a couple of tracks which will be the first 7” single release. We have other incredible local musicians such as Mark Zaleski on alto sax, Tomoki Sanders on tenor sax, Tucker Antell on flute and tenor sax, Julian Dessler on trumpet, Jeffrey Lockhart and Yuma Hara on guitar.
“Supanova” is on vinyl via our Chicago-based record label called Star Creature Universal Vibrations. You can find the label on our Bandcamp page, online shops like Juno.co.uk and various record shops worldwide. With digital tracks, you’ll find them on all usual online platforms.
One of the exciting things about the album is the artwork. It was done by the comic book artist Steven E. Gordon who contributed to the comics like Jem and the Holograms, X-Men Avengers and many others. Can’t wait for the world to hear and see it!
There are many versions of this song but Byrd’s is, I think, the benchmark. From his assertive entrance to a wide and sweet sostenuto; from the soaring, spaghetti Western vocals to the shimmering keys – this song puts me in mind of a sweeping (and maybe sad) look over my life thus far. Not to be morose: there is glowing joy to be had here too. Sealed off with its perfect, soft ending, the song is five-plus minutes of bliss, introspection, understanding and acceptance.
Pianist Edward Simon has been with the SFJAZZ Collective for almost ten years. He’s contributed original compositions to their playlist, and speaks excitedly about playing the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Miles in the current performance season.
Simon (who leads two other ensembles) has more news: a CD that has just been released called “Sorrows and Triumphs.” It features the lovely intertwining complexity of Imani Winds, comprised of classical woodwind musicians. Combined with the sensitivity and emotional depth of Simon on piano, this album blends fresh colors on a wide and inviting canvas. Some of the top tracks here include a fantasy of mesmerizing vocals threading through a dizzying rhythm (“Triumph”) and the incredibly soothing “Chant.”
Why do you feel piano is an extension of your self-expression?
I can’t say exactly why I was attracted to the piano as a musical instrument. I first started on the organ before I moved to the piano. My sister was already playing it so there was already one at the house.
Perhaps it was something to do with my interest in composition. The piano is one of the most complete musical instruments and the preferred tool for most composers. It can function as a melodic, harmonic and rhythmic instrument all at one.
Why were you keen on becoming a member of the SFJAZZ Collective?
When Renee Rosnes, the original pianist, decided to leave, I was invited to join. My interests in jazz performance, composing and arranging seemed to align well with the ensemble’s mission, so I decided to become part of the ensemble. Additionally, I already knew and/or had played with many of the Collective members at the time, so it seemed a like a good fit.
What is it about your approach to jazz that made it so natural to come on board?
I would say that it is my versatility, eclectic interests and sensibility for classical music. The Collective is a very special ensemble as it is formed by eight leaders, each with a unique and strong artistic vision. As the members change so does the music.
Because the players/composers in the ensemble have very different writing styles, it requires players with a specialized set of skills and knowledge. Particularly when it comes to the rhythm section, it is important to be informed in various musical styles and traditions: straight-ahead, funk, classical, Brazilian and various styles from the Caribbean and South America. These days about half of the band is from the Caribbean, so in recent times stylistically the music has leaned heavily on those musical traditions, with an emphasis on Afro-Caribbean.
What do you enjoy most about the instrumental makeup of the Collective?
I love the fact that we have vibes. This instrument, when combined with other instruments, offers numerous color possibilities. The ensemble is also unique: it is neither a small jazz ensemble nor a big band, yet it can function as either one.
Since joining the Collective in 2010, what were some of the most memorable performances?
During the inauguration of the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco there was a series of performances taking place over several days. Chick Corea was among the special guest artists. We had the opportunity to perform my arrangement of “Spain” with him. I am a huge fan of Chick, and being on stage with him was truly a memorable experience.
What do you most want people to know about SFJAZZ?
Jazz is one of the most unique and beautiful things the United States has to offer to the world. SFJAZZ is an organization that is committed to this art form. It does this through presenting music all year round, educational programs honoring great masters with a life achievement award, and the SFJAZZ Collective.
What original compositions of yours will the Collective play this year?
My original composition for the current season is “Insight.”
How do you feel about bringing the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim to life this season along with music by/associated with Miles Davis?
I’m particularly excited about working with the music of Jobim because he is the first Latin American composer whose music we’ve featured. I think Jobim has been a very complementary choice for the Collective in that it brings balance to our repertoire. I love his composition “Zingaro” (aka “Portrait in Black and White”). While Miles Davis and Jobim are very different artists, I think what they have in common is their ability to say more with fewer notes. I love Miles’ “All Blues.”
Do you perform with other ensembles also? How do you divide your time and attentions?
Yes, I lead my trio, Ensemble Venezuela, and Afinidad, a quartet I co-lead with David Binney. I usually spend about two months during the summer writing and preparing for the Collective’s season which consists of two tours: one in the fall, which includes a residency at the SFJAZZ Center, and a second tour in the spring.
Your newest album, “Sorrows and Triumphs” – what was the biggest challenge?
Getting all those people together in the same place at the same time! The second biggest challenge is funding a production of that size.
Favorite track on this CD?
Hmmm, that’s a hard one. I like different tracks for different reasons. I would say “Uninvited Thoughts” because you get to hear what Imani Winds can do. I think Gretchen sounds beautiful on the album, particularly on “Chant.”
What are the most interesting developments in jazz today?
The music is continually evolving rhythmically and being informed by traditions from other parts of the world.
The rhythms scatter like light coming through holes in glass and the sax’s assertive melodic line sets a heart-quickening story to music. This is “Mind Your Step,” a track on Ratko Zjaca’s CD called “Life on Earth.” Texture and continuity are provided by Zjaca on guitar (softly, at first) until he breaks out into a deeply emotional solo. Somber, echoing drumbeats imbue “Guanajo” with a primal fearfulness. The song’s surface is unexpectedly pierced with experimental sounds from the Hammond organ, upset by the sax’s up-down-up again runs, but the Hammond soon returns and rules the roost. Zjaca paints in pastels with the lovely chord changes intro’ing “Here Nothing Begins,” soon followed by the sax joining in unison. When the theme presents itself there’s lots of riffing off it from guitar as well as intelligent, intricate beats from the drums. “Life on Earth” makes you happy you’re on the third rock from the sun.
What was the inspiration behind the title of your CD, “Life on Earth”?
After traveling around the world I decided to put this experience into music for my new album.
Is there a common melodic thread? How did you decide the order of the tracks?
The whole record is one story with many short chapters and if I know what will be first and last then the rest is easy.
What was the most difficult to record or produce?
When you have musicians of this level who have played together for a few years, everything come naturally.
Which track is your personal favorite and why?
Absolutely, it’s the first one “Baracoa,” because is dedicated to the beautiful people and small town in Cuba where I had a great time two years ago.
Talk about the different culture in the jazz community between New York City and the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands, life is more relaxed, and musicians don’t struggle like in NYC. You can hear this in the music.
On other side honestly I’m looking for musicians that fit together on a musical and personal level, so it doesn’t matter which part of the world they’re from.
My two regular groups are completely cosmopolitan musicians from different countries.
Did you score the Hammond organ to produce unusual tones (accordion?) and what is its role in your music?
My group with the Hammond has a harmonic orientation where the guitar plays leading parts; the group with the accordion is full of contrast and interaction with the guitar.
How did you put your ensemble together for this album?
I recorded the album three years ago in NYC with sax musician Stefano Bedetti and I was impressed with him musically and personally. I felt he was the right one for the new album.
I grew up with many favorite records that had Hammond organ and when I played with Renato Chicco, and I felt it was time to record with him too.
Thinking about who would be the drummer on this CD was the easy part since I’m huge fan of drummer Antonio Sanchez and I know he would be perfect for the recording.
Talk about the differences in the groove between your Nocturnal Four, ZZ Quartet and the Duo.
They are completely different groups and approaches.
ZZ Quartet is musical theater with lots of humor and contrast in music and composition. It’s a fun challenge to play in this band.
Nocturnal Four is a new group with enormous potential. I’m really looking forward to producing a new album with these guys.
How did it feel to win the Orpheus Award for your previous CD “Don’t Try This Anywhere”?
We got this for the album we recorded with the incredible accordion player Simone Zanchini who is one of most original musicians on the world scene. He is a musician who really changed the face of his instrument.
How did you get Cris Mirabella to design a guitar for you?
I’ve been playing guitars from Cris Mirabella for ten years. He’s one of the best luthiers of Archtop guitars. Cris is a pure genius when we talk about sound, construction, design and building guitars. His guitars sound beyond reality.
A long time ago I recorded an album called “Shades of Spirit” on fretless guitars. I had the idea to make a guitar with one half of the neck fretless and the other half fretted, and told Cris about it. 9 months later he called and said he a 10-string chamber fretted/fretless guitar with one neck. It’s just an incredible instrument!
What is your favorite part of being a musician?
Just letting the music be music. Do what you love and try every day to bring something new to it.
What is the most difficult part of being a jazz musician?
For me, nothing. I love playing, teaching, practicing and writing. I think it’s very important to learn which people you can play with and to enjoy the privilege of playing music. It’s just blessing.
Are you always writing and composing?
Yes, almost every day. I wrote collections of more than 400 compositions and try to write better every time. You need to have lots of patience and dedication.
Where will you tour “Life on Earth”?
We will play this summer and we have also couple of great festivals coming up. We’ll record a new album soon.
Daniel Bennett took the sax and his imagination and pivoted. The result is a unique collection of music that builds layer upon layer of woodwinds (sax, flute, clarinet and oboe) with Mark Cocheo’s guitar and its stringed brethren (mandolin, banjo) to amazing effect. “We Are The Orchestra” has a unique, American folk-meets-jazz feeling to it with each track a singular treat. You may wonder about the reason behind the name “Loose-Fitting Spare Tire” until you hear the interesting chord changes as this upbeat melody bops left, right and diagonally. The blissful, high-energy “Inside Our Pizza Oven” is funny, friendly and rhythmically mesmerizing. The surprise of a fat electric guitar cuts through “Carl Finds His Way” and the modern take on Verdi’s darkish waltz “Il Trovatore” features Bennett’s melodic sax, then saxes, that weave lush harmonies together for a sunny resolution.
What do you love absolutely the most about the saxophone?
The saxophone is truly of the most versatile instruments. I started playing the saxophone when I was ten years old. My older sister took me to a high school jazz concert. I heard a saxophonist named Chris Oldfield and was absolutely blown away by his sound. The instrument is relatively “young” compared to other orchestral instruments. Adolphe Sax patented the saxophone in 1846. But the saxophone has been adapted itself quickly into the world of pop, jazz, classical and world music.
I make my living as a jazz player, but I am actually classically trained. I have a Master’s degree in Saxophone Performance from the New England Conservatory in Boston. While studying at NEC, I performed music by contemporary classical composers like Ingolf Dahl, Paul Creston, Eugene Bozza, Pierre-Max Dubois and Alfred Desenclos. The saxophone world is huge and there are many ways to express yourself on this instrument. It’s quite amazing!
What was the most important take-away from your formal music education?
You must be versatile! This is something I resisted for years. As a young artist, I wanted to be good at just ONE thing. I saw myself as a jazz alto saxophonist. But I was forced into many diverse musical situations throughout my college years. At the New England Conservatory, I performed numerous transcriptions of pieces by Rachmaninoff, Bach and Mozart. In addition, I was playing new music by adventurous young composers. I was also playing jazz with renowned musicians like Bob Moses. In 2002, I performed the Concertino da Camera by Jacques Ibert as a soloist with the Roberts Wesleyan College Orchestra. I really struggled to leap back and forth between musical styles. But it truly shaped who I am as a musician.
What don’t they teach you that has been a valuable lesson you had to learn on your own?
I learned to be an entertainer on the streets. I didn’t learn it in school.
I am very influenced by the music of Steve Reich, Ornette Coleman and the Smiths. That’s a strange mix of music, but the common thread is MELODY! To me, melody is the most important element.
I grew up playing in church, so I love hymns like “It is Well with My Soul” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I see no boundary line between any genre of music. I transcribe Paul Desmond saxophone solos every week. I just transcribed his solo on “Out of Nowhere.” Some of his lines could have been pulled from a Bach invention. So beautiful!
Talk about the sound and what each member contributes in the Daniel Bennett Group.
My early recordings have a very strong American folk aesthetic. The group sound has evolved over time. The music is more “electric” than it used to be. The Boston Globe describes our music as “a mix of jazz, folk, and minimalism.” That’s a great description.
The current line-up for my touring trio is Nat Janoff on guitar and Koko Bermejo on drums.
What is your most recent CD with this ensemble?
The most recent recording with the full band is “Sinking Houseboat Confusion.” I also recently released “We Are the Orchestra,” a special duo album with guitarist Mark Cocheo.
Fascinating way of recording “We Are The Orchestra” with both you and Mark Cocheo playing everything. Was this difficult to pull off?
It was not easy! The new album is a bold departure from previous works. Mark and I recorded and layered all of the wind, string and percussion instruments to create the sound of a large ensemble. We played 16 instruments on the album! The music blends modern jazz, folk and classical music with an infusion of our usual offbeat humor. This is my 8th full-length album as a bandleader.
How did the commission from the Whitney Museum come about?
I recently composed the musical score for stage adaptations of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Brave Smiles’ at the Hudson Guild Theater in Manhattan. Jim Furlong is the artistic director of the Hudson Guild. In early 2018, Jim asked me to arrange the music for Whitman at the Whitney, a show featuring the poetry of Walt Whitman set to music. We launched the show at the Whitney Museum in New York City. Walt Whitman loved opera and American folk music. Jim wanted us to combine these elements throughout the production. Strange combination, but it worked brilliantly!
How did you think of inviting the banjo into jazz and what is the audience reaction to it?
Listeners are always confused by me. That’s the story of my life! Every album I release has a strange twist to it. I have found that listeners will adjust quickly. You just need to presently yourself confidently and your audience will follow. That’s the beauty of making music in 2019. You can try anything!
Was it fun to reinterpret operatic themes as jazz melodies?
Composers like Verdi and Mozart had such a strong melodic sense. It was very easy to transfer these melodies to my woodwind instruments. The most challenging part was sitting down and transcribing the actual chords from the original opera arrangements. I had a few scores to work with, but a lot of this was done by ear.
Talk about “Blank, the Musical” and how it has sharpened you as a soloist/improviser?
‘Blank! the Musical’ is the first fully improvised musical to launch on a national stage. The audience creates a full musical theater show on their phone and we improvise a show on the spot. They create the show title, song titles, dance styles, melodic themes and much more. The actors and the band have to listen closely and work together as a team. It is a very challenging show.
We’ve been performing the show since 2014. We first launched at New World Stages in Times Square. Now the show is at the popular Green Room 42 venue in midtown Manhattan. My job is to play fixed melodies that the audience can remember. This has really sharpened my listening skills.
What do you most want people to know…or to feel…about your music?
My goal is to worship God and serve the people. I hope people feel that when they hear my music or see me perform in concert.
I have never tried to fit into a specific scene. We play jazz clubs and festivals. But we also play in rock venues and theater. We just wrapped a show at the Oaks Theater in Pittsburgh. Every night is different. We play at the Blue Note in New York City every year. That is definitely a jazz crowd. But the next night we could be performing for a classical audience at a museum. I don’t restrict myself to any genre or demographic. I encourage young musicians to break free from the mainstream jazz world. Follow your own path!
In the days of apartheid in South Africa, jazz was happening, but there was little hope in reaching its full potential; much of it went unnoticed, disrespected and certainly uncelebrated. Today, the founder of Cape Town’s i-Sound Studios, Leonardo Fortuin, has been pivotal in bringing back one of the country’s pioneers to reclaim the genre, and his name is Ibrahim Khalil Shihab (earlier known as Chris Schilder).
To hear Shihab’s music of then and now is to witness a heartwarming return to beautiful melodies and perfection in phrasing that can finally, joyfully be shared with jazz lovers around the world. The new album “Essence of Spring” features a stunning Shihab who sparkles on piano and his powerhouse co-producer Ramon Alexander, amazing on piano as well.
How did you come to start i-Studios and what is your mission, what is your hope?
Leonardo: i-Studios is a direct result of me meeting Ramon. Just before my 37th birthday, I asked my cousin to recommend a Jazz pianist for my birthday dinner. I called Ramon on his recommendation and agreed on a two-hour session which ended with Ramon leaving 2 a.m. the next morning. This was a special encounter, besides the fact that I have never heard my home piano sounding that good, we chatted about his current status as a musician among other things (January 2014). I have never been involved in the music industry before this and had absolutely no musical background. I can’t play any instrument, I don’t sing unless it’s something I really know and definitely can’t dance to save a life. With all this in mind I called Ramon for a meeting the following Monday and asked if he would allow me to manage his career. He was willing to take the risk. I think we are both grateful he did.
At the time I had another business as well as traveling extensively as an offshore worker. Between myself and my South African business partner we took this venture on with the little knowledge. We had however been guided by Ramon’s musical know-how. I-Studios was formed during the production of the “Echoes from Louwskloof” album. We did everything in-house from album design to registrations, concert arrangements and more. This was not flawless at all but the result of “Echoes” was good and we managed to get the album on the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in 2015.
My hope/mission is to create an understanding and appreciation for music and specifically Cape Jazz. The plan is to give recognition to more musical legends while they are still alive and if it means producing more noteworthy albums then it will be. Ibrahim’s Essence of Spring was only the start. A Cape Jazz world tour is definitely one of the goals.
More countries need to experience our contribution to the art.
What is your musical background?
Ramon: I am classically trained as a pianist and always had an interest in composition for as long as I can remember. However, I never had formal training. I’ve had very good teachers though.
When I was 18 years of age (back in 1998) I took lessons with one of Cape Town’s leading jazz pianists and teachers, Merton Barrow. There I learned about jazz in general, plus theory, harmony, composition and jazz piano. We discussed the contributions of artists like Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Bill Evans and more modern pianists like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Michel Petruccianni, Abdullah Ibrahim and Keith Jarrett. It was Merton who dropped the name of Christopher James Schilder in my ear for the very first time in my life. I later learned that he was known as Ibrahim Khalil Shihab and has been an Islam convert since 1975.
What is the essence of Cape Town jazz?
Ramon: Cape Town is a cosmopolitan port city and there are well documented stories, for instance, about a young Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Adolph Johannes Drand) buying jazz records from visiting sailors for a dollar each. This is when he picked up the nickname “Dollar” and soon he was known on stage as Dollar Brand. This is how jazz infiltrated the city, initially.
People of mixed race here in South Africa consisted of Malay (colonial slaves from Indonesia and Malaysa), European and indigenous lineages. All of these different roots surfaced in the music. Jewish, Indo-Malayan, Christian Choral Music, Western popular culture, remnants of largely undocumented Khoi-Khoi sounds and of course jazz are all evident in a cultural melting pot known as Cape Jazz. A typical rhythm that comes from this music is known as Goema (pronounced as Ghu-mah). Since the world has changed into a more globalized community, Cape Jazz has evolved to a much more contemporary, global sound and is exploited well by current, young South African artists such as Kyle Shepherd, Mark Fransman, Benjamin Jefta and Bokani Dyer.
How has the jazz scene in South Africa become such a strong force in international jazz today?
Ramon: South African music was exported by great artists like Abdullah Ibrahim, Chris McGregor, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Anthony Cedras (Paul Simon Band fame), Robbie Jansen, Basil Coetzee, Errol Dyers and Jonathan Butler. That flame is still kept burning through current artists like Kesivan Naidoo Kyle Shepherd, Mark Fransman, Benjamin Jefta and Bokani Dyer. South Africa also has, for the past three decades or so, jazz institutes at universities and arts festivals with a healthy dose of foreign exchange to boot.
To the uninitiated, what should people know when they are about to explore the sound of Cape Town jazz today?
Ramon: The sound of the Goema rhythm is the defining sound of the Cape. However Cape Town has its fair share of jazz masters who are skilled in most branches of jazz. Hard bop specialists, interpreters of Bill Evans and artists with an ear for the sound of the ECM label etc. are all alive and well in the city.
Jazz dancing (a Cape Town version of salsa) is often performed in nightclubs and other social gatherings to, for example, the music of Earth Wind and Fire, Chaka Khan, El DeBarge and Stevie Wonder. These influences you can typically expect in the repertoire of a Cape jazz artist. Jazz Rock Fusion (by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Weather Report and Chick Corea’s “Return to Forever”) is also evident in the typical Cape jazz musician’s arsenal.
How did “Essence of Spring” come about since Ibrahim Khalil Shihab had not recorded in nearly 50 years? Did he seek you out or did you find him?
Ramon: Ibrahim, after the days he was keyboardist and primary composer for the Cape Town -based super-band Pacific Express, had to leave the country for better work to support his family. He worked as an entertainer on hotel circuits in the UAE, China and Southern Africa. Back home, his keyboard and composing skills were legendary, but no recordings of post-Pacific Express were available. I used to play with legendary Cape alto sax player, Robbie Jansen (from the Sons of Table Mountain) on various occasions and eventually I became very close to Jack Momple, the band’s drummer. Robbie and Jack were very close and were both members of Pacific Express. After Robbie died in 2010, Jack took over the band and recruited me to what is known as The Cape Jazz Band.
During my time in this band, I learned such a lot about Cape Jazz and its major players and had already arranged Pacific Express music for a fresh, new audience since the original recordings sounded old and jaded. The music of course was excellent in my opinion. Jack, even today, always left the thought in my head that Ibrahim still has a lot of music in him and that I should look into ‘finding’ that music and possibly documented it in a studio recording. In August 2017, Leonardo and myself met up with Ibrahim and proposed to record an album for him. He agreed.
How is this album an homage and expansion upon the much earlier “Spring”?
Ramon: The original “Spring” album was recorded in an hour during the hours after midnight. In the Apartheid days people of color were treated with the utmost disrespect. Therefore Ibrahim could never really be proud of “Spring.”
The new album, “Essence of Spring” has an updated version of the 1968 title track and features once again, young, current and relevant players on the Cape Town jazz scene. The album contains new compositions by Shihab. “Jing’an Park,” for instance, talks about his meditations in the park in Jing’an District while he was working his residency at the Hilton Hotel in Shanghai, China. “Cancerian Moon” is an original tune that fellow bassist Lionel Beukes remembered playing with Ibrahim way back in 1986.
As producer I felt that after 40 years not being in a studio for a substantial album, Shihab needed to be reintroduced to the people who knew his music and still remembered him as Chris Schilder from the 70’s (there is a fantastic 50-odd minute, three track solo piano album out there issued by October Records and some bootleg CDs recorded in home studios). I decided to add some Pacific Express classics to make the connection to his new name. Ibrahim has always loved playing solo… so we included a medley of jazz standards on solo piano. There is also a trio version of him playing Rogers and Hart’s well known My Funny Valentine. Of course we cannot leave out a Goema tune (Bo-Kaap; loosely translates to ‘Upper Cape Town’ in Afrikaans). “Give a Little Love,” one of the vocal tunes (Pacific Express’ major hit), also features on the album. By this song alone Ibrahim should have been a millionaire!
Talk about the inventiveness of the songs on this new album.
Ramon: Recruiting young, fresh and relevant jazz musicians from the Cape Town scene contributed to a sound that has a more contemporary edge.
How was he chosen to participate in March’s Cape Town Jazz festival?
Ramon: Having made such a buzz on social media of the arrival of Shihab’s new album attracted the festival’s attention. I suppose every festival in the world would like to showcase their own legends, our own Herbie Hancocks or Keith Jarretts. Unfortunately Ibrahim never produced new material on an album and would have never been considered on a regular basis. He was however invited to play at this same festival in 2013.
What kind of sound do you and Ibrahim get when you collaborate?
Ramon: I am just there to communicate his music, his heart and soul to the musicians. I act as musical director, so to speak. I transcribe his tunes and arrange it for his ensemble. Ibrahim values my knowledge of what is current in the developing Cape Town music scene.
What was the biggest challenge in producing “Echoes from Louwskloof”?
“Echoes from Louwskloof” was recorded in one day (Sunday, 6 September 2015)… from 5 a.m. until 7 p.m. This was a first for i-Studios. It was a live in-studio recording.
Leonardo: “Reflections.” This is off the “Picnic at Kontiki” album. I absolutely love the baseline on the track. The new re-arranged version with guitar has become another favorite.
What do you like most about working with jazz musicians?
Leonardo: Their discipline when it comes to the music, and how different each and every one of them sound on the same instrument. I think that is why I love the Cape Jazz piano album so much; it’s the same piano with the exact same microphone setup played by five respected pianists.
Besides the annual jazz festival there, are there a lot of opportunities for exposure for these artists in Cape Town?
Leonardo: Definitely not enough platforms to allows jazz artists the freedom to put their art on display. This is one of the challenges we have, which i-Studios has been trying to address. When we opened our own venue in 2016 we were able to address some of the challenges.
What could be done to improve the scene or to encourage more musicians to perform there?
Leonardo: It will take time to change the scene. Audience development is a major factor throughout the industry, specifically in schools. If we create an appreciation and understanding for jazz, I have no doubt that we will have a visible change in the next few years. But this does not come without funding. With regards to encouraging musicians to perform here, collaboration is key. Traveling and touring with a full band is costly and those costs could be reduced tremendously by collaborating with local artists, planning and reliable recommendations would be key.
Leonardo: The generation before us paved the road for the current musicians. It is important that those musicians get recognized for their contribution.
My concern is that the music will die with those legends if it is not transcribed. This was almost the case with Ibrahim.
A new CD born from collaboration and camaraderie has just been released by five stellar New York City musicians, including Kenny Shanker on saxophones; Mike Eckroth on piano; Daisuke Abe on guitar; Yoshi Waki on bass and Brian Fishler on drums.
“Coalescence 2” does sweet and light (“Downhill”), high-stepping funk (“Whatever, That Was”), melodies that twist intervals into delicious pretzels (with a bitchin’ bass) in the song “Mars”; and fascinating, contrasting textures in “Galileo’s Dialogue.” Showcasing the amazing chops of these musicians, “Coalescence 2” is also a trip worth taking into the minds of five awesome composers.
How long has “Coalescence 2” been in the making?
Yoshi: The recording itself was quick; just one rehearsal then two days in the studio. Unlike the last album, we spent months for mixing and mastering, to make sure that everybody was happy with the mix. I think it came out nicely.
What was the most challenging part of the production or recording process?
Kenny: The post-production was probably the biggest challenge. We all had different ideas of what we wanted to hear. The nice thing about this whole process was that by incorporating everyone’s ideas, we came out with a much better finished product. I’m really happy with the way it sounds.
How would each band member characterize his own contribution in writing for this album?
Yoshi: Two of my tunes are rather simple and catchy, adding a nice contrast to the otherwise jazz/fusion oriented album. “Galileo” showcases the piano/sax interplay in a freer context, which we don’t explore often.
Kenny: I brought in 3 compositions: “Winter Song,” “Lynx” and Mars. “Winter Song” is gentle and moody, “Lynx” is playful, and “Mars” is intense. I always write with this particular group in mind and I knew these guys would play beautifully on my songs.
Mike: I think the three tunes I wrote represent the different bags I like to write in-in other words I am drawing from some diverse traditions in the music and I never like to get stuck in a rut writing-wise. I draw from fusion, contemporary jazz, and ECM music, styles which complement some of the more straight-ahead sounds on the album.
Brian: I consider this group of musicians to be an optimistic bunch of guys. I attempted to capture that quality with “Downward Climb.” I felt Kenny and Daisuke were perfect to play the melody together in unison, knowing that Mike would tastefully ornament the space with his own statements. Yoshi is the anchor. I like the result. With “The Dash”, I was thinking of openness and simplicity. These guys can certainly accommodate that vibe brilliantly.
Each musician’s favorite track and why?
Yoshi: Brian’s “Dash.” The simplicity of the song brings out the lyricism.
Brian: It’s extremely tough to pick one out of this bunch but I’ll say Kenny’s “Winter Song.” Just a very pretty tune. Need more of those in the world.
Daisuke : I like “Basel Paisagem” because my daughter likes it and even sings along. Great tune by Mike.
Mike: All of the tunes are pretty strong compositionally. I like “Lynx,” which is kind of a quintessential Kenny tune- melodic and playable right off the bat. Yoshi’s “Whatever, That Was” is a fun groove tune, and it’s great to see Brian getting into the act composing for this project with his tunes, too.
Kenny: My favorite at the moment is probably “The Dash” by Brian but I had a lot of fun playing over Yoshi’s song, “Whatever, That Was.” I also had a blast with Mike’s song, “Weather Chaser.”
Does the friendship strengthen the music or vice versa?
Brian: My belief is that both are happening. The process that we go through, from writing the music to mastering and packaging the final product, bonds everyone together. It works well because it is a democracy with a common, like-minded goal to be achieved. Everyone is on the same page. It is the same with the playing of the music. The common goal yields the cohesive sound. Everyone is aware of their responsibility and produces results without overstepping.
Did any of the writing come from out of your comfort zones?
Mike: I was definitely going out of our normal acoustic vibe with the tune “Weather Chaser”… it was kind of written to a loop but with an almost 70s fusion sonic palate in mind. There is fender rhodes and it’s kind of a groove tune with a bass line that was actually lower than the normal range of the acoustic bass so Yoshi had to tune his low string down just for that tune! This track was definitely a diversion…
As an ensemble, what is the major way 2012’s “Coalescence” differed from this new album?
Daisuke : When we made our first recording in 2012, I was more of a guest artist on the project, so I was trying to fit into the band. Now, after many years of playing together regularly, we coalesce a lot more.
Are you performing this live? Where do you hope to play it?
Kenny: We have sone fun performances coming up in NYC. We are playing the Queens Jazz OverGround Festival on March 31st at Flushing Town Hall. And we are doing our CD Release Concert at Jazz at Kitano on April 18th.
Daisuke: I really hope this music can reach a lot of people and make people happy.