Jazzing up the Great Hall with Carlo Mombelli

Africa and Europe met at the Great Hall last night. Bassist, composer and Wits lecturer, Carlo Mombelli reunited with his European touring band, the Stories Ensemble, joined by Capetonian pianist Kyle Shepherd. They played music from Mombelli’s latest album, Stories.


PLAYER AND TEACHER: Carlo Mombelli tells ‘Stories’ through music  Photo: Michael Hoefner/WikiCommons

Groove met classical and traditional at the Wits Great Hall last night. Composer, bassist and Wits music lecturer Carlo Mombelli and his band, the Stories Ensemble, took jazz music and stretched it. They played music that not only entertained, but pulled at the heartstrings – places indescribable by words.

“I love teaching, and I am very anti the ‘jazz police”

Mombelli brought his European band, the Stories Ensemble, for a South African tour that had them performing at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, at the University of KwaZulu Natal, in Maputo, Mozambique and ending off at the Wits Great Hall. They mainly performed music from Mombelli’s latest album, Stories (Instinct Africaine), recorded in Switzerland.

Born in Pretoria, Mombelli taught himself how to play the bass at age 16, and later went on to start his own band called Abstractions in 1985. He has performed with South African jazz greats like Marcus Wyatt, Zim Ngqawana and Miriam Makeba. He has, and continues to, perform all over the world.

Last night, the bassist was joined by Zulu ‘traditional’ vocalist Mbuso Khoza, whose clean yet strong and passionate voice effortlessly blended in with the ensemble. Adrian Mears’ warm trombone transitioned from powerful to delicate melodies in an instant. Drummer Dejan Terzic created a full, rounded powerful sound. Cape Town pianist Kyle Shepherd, who was not part of Mombelli’s original recording in Switzerland, merged his Cape jazz style with the eclectic sound of the band. His playing was intimate, compelling and strong, as usual. The classical element was brought by cellist Daniel Pezzotti, bringing elegance and originality to the group.

Mombelli began the set with a composition titled Requiem, originally performed with his band The Prisoners of Strange in 1996. The Hunter had the crowd grooving to its infectious bouncy melody. Shepherd took it to Cape Town, Khoza brought in a dynamic traditional component, resulting in a trance-like element to the music. A poetic tribute to Mombelli’s first piano teacher titled, For Mrs Loveday, then followed. Experimentation, creativity and improvisation. All elements piercing through the music.

On stage, Mombelli was tiny and short, and his bass guitars seemed almost too big for him. But, he connected with his band members like a choir master would to a 60 voice choir. Making eye contact, hand signals and head nods that indicated when to start, stop or pause. A seamless form of communication.

At times, Mombelli played with his back turned to the audience. Not as an act of alienation, but to rather unite – the audience, the band members, and those only among us in spirit.

“I love teaching, and I am very anti the ‘jazz police’” Mombelli told The Cape Argus last year. This shows in the Ensemble’s style of playing – going beyond rigid boundaries. Their music moves. It drives itself, creating new possibilities for the art of making music.

Carlo Mombelli and the Stories Ensemble delivered a solid performance, but what else can we expect from some of the world’s most creative and sought after musicians?

Jazzy Jacobs

Jazz vocalist Sean Jacobs.  Photo: Percy Matshoba

Jazz vocalist Sean Jacobs.
Photo: Percy Matshoba

FOURTH year BMus Wits student Sean Jacobs is a jazz vocalist who performs regularly at local jazz venues. His greatest achievement was being chosen to perform at the Nelson Mandela Memorial last year alongside well-known jazz vocalist Lira. He is also a pianist and flautist.

Did you always know you wanted to sing?

I started singing from a young age. Then I stopped in grade ten and took up the flute. It was after a year’s course in theatre that I realised that singing is my passion. I realised I had the desire to use my voice to translate meaning. I believe that music can be used for the social betterment of others and I enjoy doing that.

What has been the highlight of your music career?

It was when I performed at Nelson Mandela’s memorial last year. I got to meet Lira, who was also performing. The great thing about my career path is that I also get to travel and, last year, I got to perform for an Investec corporate event in Mauritius.

Do you think the South African music industry has room for jazz artists?

I think our industry is small but diverse. There is space to be different. Talent needs to be balanced with hard work. Some artists depend on talent and that attitude is what fails them in the end. Musicians of all genres also need to network, a lot, and get as many contacts as possible and make themselves known.

Who inspires you?

I like listening to people who set the trends – music pioneers. I draw inspiration from different people who infuse genres cleverly like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, The Carpenters, Pharrell Williams, Marcus Wyatt and sometimes I listen to rock music.

If you were not doing music what would you be doing?

I would be acting. I’m very involved in the music industry and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.


What do you think about the notion that a music degree is not like any other Wits degree?

People often look down on music and drama students because they don’t know that, in order to do well, it takes hard work and dedication like any other degree at Wits.

Do you practise your vocals at res?

No, if I had to practise at res it would be disruptive to other students. I sometimes sing in my room but not too loud as I would when I’m practising or performing.

WITH GALLERY: Soulful wrap to a weekend of jazz

The third leg of the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival is usually the most highly anticipated. This year’s finale was no different – with the likes of Selaelo Selota, Stimela and Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse standing out as local favourites to look forward to. Carmen Lundy and The Temptations Review featuring Dennis Edwards were the must-see international acts.

Saturday was the busiest of the three evenings, with all the restaurants in the enclosed precinct filled to capacity.

A medley of jazz genres and hip hop could be heard as enthusiasts made their way from one venue to the next, rushing to get a good seat with the perfect view.

Bassline and the Dinaledi stages were the more intimate spaces, with the audience almost at eye level with the artists. Stimela and Kabomo Vilakazi were on the more concert-like Mbira stage and their shows were fitting of this setting.

As soon as they started performing their first item, Stimela’s audience was on their feet. The crowd danced and sang along to the band’s very last song – after which they demanded an encore from the Afro-fusion legends.

As the evening drew to a close and jazz lovers made their way out, they were met with crowds that had clearly watched Selota instead. They laughed and shouted “Thrr Phaa!” the catchy phrase and title of one of his more famous singles. The exit queues were abuzz with informal reviews of the shows they had seen, most of which were filled with excitement and satisfaction.

Wherever you ended up this past weekend, as long as you were in Newtown, you were in for a soulful treat from some of the world’s most celebrated artists.


WITH VIDEO: Jazz a jolt of insights

KEY MAN: Japanese master pianist Tsuyoshi Yamamoto. Photo: Mfuneko Toyana

KEY MAN: Japanese master pianist Tsuyoshi Yamamoto. Photo: Mfuneko Toyana

The Standard Bank Joy of Jazz got underway properly in Newtown on Friday after opening on Thursday with only three shows and a small audience, mostly media and promoters, in attendance.

For reasons hard to fathom, organisers of the festival, in its 13th thriving year, chose this blustery Highveld evening, a day before the start of the month-end weekend, for South African legend Abdullah Ibrahim to showcase his piano skills for the ears of a select few.

Jazz, it must be said though, has long projected an image of elitism if not downright unintelligibility.

On Friday, however, jazz lovers from Joburg and further afield, judging by the snatches of foreign accents that ascended as dusk fell on the city of gold, had dusted off their berets and bowler hats and came in their droves to devour the over 40 local and international artists on offer.

And a feast it was.


DRUM 'n BASS: The rest of Yamamoto's band. Photo: Mfuneko Toyana

DRUM ‘n BASS: The rest of Yamamoto’s band. Photo: Mfuneko Toyana


Four premier venues across the cultural precinct were transformed into light orbs of music. The Market Theatre, Bassline, The Dance Factory, together with the whole of Mary Fitzgerald Square provided the stage for jazz’s finest practitioners to thrill lovers of the genre with technical and artistic brilliance.

And that was the first thing that struck you: the amount of time and attention to detail paid to every aspect of the festival. Especially the venues for the live performance themselves.

Every note, pin-sharp and as crisp as the musicians had conceived it, flowed seamlessly from stage to audience. At times, overwhelmed by the sheer force of the sonic quality, audiences broke out in rapturous applause at odd times during performances, beside themselves with emotion.

It is a quality and sensation evoked by jazz music, more so when heard live, that is nearly impossible to describe. [pullquote align=”right”]In some ways it is similar to the highs and lows of a catatonic state that characterises manic mental conditions[/pullquote].

A deep, almost dire sense of brooding and introspection is afflicted on the listener by the double bass menacingly strummed. But just then, on the brink of a voluntary oblivion, scampering notes of the piano seem to lift the soul into cloudless light.

Not at speed though, but a gradual pace that recognises the nearness of that total collapse with the philosophical insolence of a homeless drunk dodging traffic.

All the while the metranomic drum, emerging and disappearing from the shadows of euphoria and despair, like the watchful blinking eye of a god, insists on the rhythm of sanity and the real.

Terrific jazz trio from Japan

Tsuyoshi Yamamoto’s trio, double bass and drum, with the Japanese maestro himself on piano, was the highlight of the evening, and testimony to the passing insights of two strangers we met during the evening.

Ardent photographer and jazzophile Tsediso, was in more than two minds about which performances to attend, as he scribbled, and then rescribbled on the festival program, and then finally gasped a plea to the heavens, begging for miracle of being in two places at once.

His dilemma: Yamamoto’s or father of local prodigy Afrika Mkhize, Themba.

A second insight came from freelance multimedia journalist Gareth, and was much simpler, on the surface that is: “honour your craft”, he said.

These words and Yamamoto’s performance on the stage provided some lessons and insights, and a few moments close to nirvana. Fortunately or not, they do not readily translate real life nor into words.

Rather the music speaks to you, for itself.


Joy of Just So Jazz

THREE KINGS: The three men of Just So Jazz charged with maintain jazz culture in Braamfontein Photo: Mfuneko Toyana

THREE KINGS: The three men of Just So Jazz charged with maintain jazz culture in Braamfontein                                                                                     Photo: Mfuneko Toyana

Many writers and theorists, artists and architects have speculated that the essence of a city lies not in its structures or in mayoral speeches – but in its “rhythm”.

And if you have been a Witsie at one point in the last 12 years, and happened to walk into the Braamfontein Centre, the music from Just So Jazz would have mingled its way, unseen, into your life’s rhythm.

Under the bespectacled gaze of owner and jazz connoisseur Eddie Mudau, jazz supremos from John Coltrane to Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse have been dispatched out the narrow door of the music store into Braamfontein’s ever-changing landscape for over a decade.

The story behind the music

“The story behind the store is the love of music,” Mudau said, warming to the rhythm of the store’s relationship with jazz and Braamfontein. The store, which recently moved from larger premises opposite the BC residence to smaller space vacated by bookstore IH Pentz, was only one year younger than the up-coming Joy of Jazz Festival.

“The problem is our history,” he said, explaining a possible reason for the decline of a jazz culture in the city. “Apartheid hit us very hard, hayi kancane. It’s the after-effect of Hiroshima.”

Mudau said the big jazz record companies did not came to South Africa to record local artists, “they came to colonise us and sell us their stuff”.

The key to bringing back a jazz culture was for the artists to start doing things for themselves and taking the music back to the people. “They think they are recording artists. It’s vice-versa. They are performing artists”. He pulled out a Wynton Marsalis CD, referring to it as “just a business card”.

“You can perform two hours every day or every second day. We work eight hours every day. What makes them special?”

Mudau said people who formed a jazz culture in the city “back then” came looking for it from far-off places like Soweto.

The store will have a stall at the three-day festival in Newtown, and judging by Mudau’s gradually rising glee as he pored over the festival’s programme, he won’t be the one manning the stand.

New kats on the blocks

He introduced Thalefang Mudau and Mulalo Tshisikhane as the “new, young faces” of the jazz store, making it clear they would be stuck behind t-shirts and merchandise while he revelled in the generous musical offerings, which includes over 40 artists and the promise of jazz music way past the midnight hour on each day.