Looking forward with energy, creativity and all that jazz
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The Centre for Jazz and Popular Music started live concerts again this week at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College, and acclaimed jazz composer, pianist and educator Neil Gonsalves is excited by what “feels like there’s a whole new energy in the room”.
As director of the centre, his trio of bassist Talent Mbatha and drum virtuoso Riley Giandhari will be joined by trumpeter Thabo Sikhakane and singer Zoe Masuku in the second concert in a three-concert series on Wednesday.
“After all, the Centre for Jazz and Popular music is a performance venue,” said Gonsalves. “Started in 1989, it may fall under the school of music, but it’s a unique place. It’s like a jazz club on a university campus, so it’s a much less formal affair. We have a bar. It’s got a stage and lighting, and the whole bang shoot.”
His trio concert programmes have been going since then.
“Initially it was three musicians and you paid R3. It was uninterrupted until we hit Covid and even then we moved very quickly to take the concert series online.”
His latest album, Blessings & Blues, was released this year. It was inspired by his 50th birthday concert in 2019 at the Chairman.
“It’s a beautiful spot to play. On that gig I had Thabo and singer Zoe join me,” he said. The album was recorded in December 2019 when the trio was reunited with bassist Ildo Nandja, now resident in the Netherlands. Mbatha, who joins the trio for Wednesday’s concert, was the recording engineer on the original album.
Blessings & Blues follows hard on the heels of Concert for One released in April last year. “It’s an introspective album where I try to make sense of the pandemic and consequent social distancing regime,” said Gonsalves.
Gonzales has written prolifically during the lockdown. “I write lyrics that don’t always fit in with the genre called jazz, but I’m keen to showcase these tunes. I don’t sing myself – besides in the shower – but the lyrics are my own kind of take on things, all of the crazy stuff we see around the world and connecting those things. They’re not that much different from what I’m doing instrumentally. It’s a quirky interpretation of all things around us.
“I’m composing so much and playing the piano more. It’s my way of trying to connect to something. We’ve got this barrier called Covid. Now I’m trying to play through Covid. So that is why this concert is such a real thing.”
He says being creative in a virtual space is not very satisfying. “There may be certain kinds of efficiency, but that sense of human connection ‒ especially with music ‒ is missing. It’s an energy thing. It’s the people in the room. The Chairman is one of my favourite places. The music may be background or concert ‒ it doesn’t matter one way or other ‒ but you tap into the energy of the room.”
He says virtual concerts miss a certain sense of vitality. “Technology has given musicians great opportunities during lockdown. Musicians in studios can simulate something that’s live. These musicians might not record in the same room or at the same time and may not have been on the same continent. But being able to play with someone is kind of like having a conversation. When you’re playing in real time, one of the musicians will do something that will change the way I’m playing, or the meaning changes, or your phrasing is different. It’s a very fluid kind of thing.”
He said one bonus was that musicians had upskilled themselves in many other ways, like making much better videos, with decent lighting and better audio. “We’ve been learning a lot of it through videos on videography on YouTube.”
Post Covid, Gonsalves is hopeful. “I’ve spoken to a few people. The real optimists are looking forward to some kind of golden age similar to the 1920s. Maybe when we can congregate once more, there will be a real flourishing in all of the arts. I look forward to that.”
Catch Gonsalves and his trio joined by Sikhakane and Masuku at Howard College on Wednesday, November 10, at 6pm. Tickets are R100 from [email protected] and booking is essential. The concerts are also being recorded with a delayed broadcast and being screened on demand on the National Arts Festival portal.
The Independent on Saturday