Elling, Davis Tribute Bring Joy to Johannesburg
Vocalist Kurt Elling was one of many superb performers at this year’s Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival in Johannesburg, South Africa, which took place on Aug. 23–25 on five stages, all alongside free events at various area venues.
The festival opened with a Sax Summit featuring five female players: soprano saxophonist Tineke Postma, altoists Grace Kelly and Nthabiseng Mokoena—who doubled on soprano—tenorist Rosemary Quaye, and baritone player and clarinetist Shannon Mowday. The quintet played the music of the late, highly respected saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. Khaya Mahlangu wrote the arrangements and guided the section in the intricacies of African jazz phrasing and feel. Each grabbed the opportunity to take advantage of soloing in her individual style but with an African feel. Besides Quaye, who seemed bemused, the others were brilliant, with Mowday stealing the edge.
The Duke Ellington Orchestra lead by pianist Tommy James provided a set of Ellington nostalgia. It’s a good swinging unit, and unlike many other ghost bands, here the soloists were not confined to playing the recorded solos; they were given the freedom to show their mettle.
Trumpeter Brian Lynch—who released Conclave Vol. 2 (Criss Cross Jazz) last year—was a horn-playing powerhouse next to pianist Eddie Palmieri, who played a solo that had Thelonious Monk written all over it.
Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon chose to play his “Hello Pops!” tribute to trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The audience loved it, but as the top trombonist in the world (per his victory in this year’s DownBeat Critics Poll), Gordon played too much trumpet and never displayed his wonderful “Tricky Sam” mute work. Clarinetist Adrian Cunningham was certainly impressive.
Like a instrumentalist phrasing and improvising on a tune, the sublime Elling twists and stretches a melody without scatting, strategically placing words as if they were pieces on a chessboard. No one in his right mind would tackle “Come Fly With Me” after Sinatra, but Elling takes it where no man has ever been before, soaring through it like a rocket. In place of long drum solos, Elling engaged in some exciting exchanges with drummer Kendrick Scott that were both fresh and musical.
The 2012 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz winner, pianist Afrika Mkhize, was world-class, balancing African rhythms with jazz in an exciting, original style. Kesivan Naidoo’s hard-bop drumming came on like Art Blakey, sans the crush-rolls, while Shane Cooper’s bass work was strong and supportive.
Pianist Monty Alexander is a master of mixing the rhythms and sounds of Jamaica and American jazz by using two separate rhythm sections. Alexander took the audience on a tour of Harlem and Kingston, and the segue from reggae into a driving 4/4 groove was gripping.
More relaxed and polite sets were provided by drummer Manu Katché and vocalist Jane Monheit, who introduced a new audience to Mel Torme‘s wonderful ballad “Born To Be Blue.”
Axman Earl Klugh was obviously happy with his guitar sound and played superbly, while his saxophonist Nelson Rangell was in sparkling form.
The biggest surprise was the Miles Davis tribute by trombonist Wayne Henderson, tenorist Everette Harpe, drummer Ndugu Chancellor, bassist Edwin Livingstone, trumpeter Tom Browne and pianist Bobby Lyle. I thought it would be aimed at Davis’ fusion period, but these musicians came to display their full jazz chops. With restrained sets up until this point, the group volcanically erupted in a style of fusion meets smooth jazz. They played with energy and conviction, grooving on “Milestones,” “Walkin,” “All Blues,” “Seven Steps To Heaven” and “Summertime.”
This year Joy of Jazz excelled with a variety of outstanding jazz and fringe artists from Africa, the United States, France and Europe. The abundance of choices required you to make up your own jazz festival out of what was offered because it would have been impossible to see and hear everyone.