Johannesburg’s Joy of Jazz Fest presents world-class talent in — and from — Africa’s southernmost nation.
By Bob Weinberg
Gregory Porter is huge in South Africa. An enormous crowd filled one of several cavernous performance spaces in the Sandton Convention Centre for the second of his two performances at September’s Joy of Jazz festival in Johannesburg. An exuberant ovation greeted the New York-based singer and his quintet, who were joined by the 35-piece Music Academy of Guateng — 11 strings, two flutes, 13 horns and more — for a set of songs spanning Porter’s last three albums.
Young South African fans sang along with Porter on favorites such as “Painted on Canvas” and new numbers such as “No Love Dying” and “Hey Laura” from 2013’s Liquid Spirit. Those fans stood and roared, though, when Porter launched into “1960 What?” from his 2010 release Water. After all, the American civil rights conflagrations described in the song mirror the anti-apartheid battles waged by South Africans, as the streets of Detroit and streets of Soweto blazed on their respective continents. “Ain’t no need for sunlight,” the audience sang, call-and-response style, with Porter. “Ain’t no need for moonlight/Ain’t no need for streetlight/It’s burning really bright.”
The shadow of apartheid, which came to an institutional end in 1994, is all but impossible to avoid in discussing South African culture. Much of that culture, including a rich jazz scene, is flavored by fairly recent history; bitter resentments linger still. But artistic expression, rather than being filled with recrimination and anger, seems more or less joyful and optimistic 20 years on, although melancholy sometimes seeps in. At least that seemed to be the case with the South African jazz artists who performed during the three-day Joy of Jazz Fest.
South African artists drew devoted audiences, even as they performed opposite international stars including Porter, Dianne Reeves and Roy Hargrove. Veteran trombonist Jonas Gwangwa led his four-horn ensemble through a set of bright and bluesy compositions, infusing straightahead jazz with buoyant South African rhythms. Fusion bassist Carlo Mombelli crafted emotionally resonant songscapes, utilizing a hushed, dreamy palette. His use of pedals to create various effects — from sitar-like overtones to bird cries — enhanced his performance, as did contributions from rising-star pianist Kyle Shepherd, standout drummer Kesivan Naidoo and Sting-like vocalist Mbuso Khosa. Bassist Herbie Tsoaeli and his excellent acoustic quartet played an impassioned set of straightahead jazz that sometimes evoked John Coltrane. Tsoaeli’s rich, woody tone on upright provided blues pulses and trancelike motifs on tunes from his masterful, long-awaited 2012 debut album African Time. Among the highlights was a number he sang in the Xhosa dialect, also Nelson Mandela’s native tongue.