Jazz artists go solo in lockdown: New Frame
The world has been shaped over the past year and a half in a painting by Edward Hopper, an art whose core is a reminder that humanity’s default state is isolation. To face it, our jazz universe has turned to the solo piano in search of answers to philosophical questions about being, in this new normal.
In South Africa, last year saw the release of five remarkable recordings by some of our most remarkable improvisers. This is striking in part because in South African jazz the solo piano tradition has been largely a concert affair, with few people engaged in recording. Pianists Neil Gonsalves, Kyle Shepherd, Sibusiso Mash Mashiloane and Abdullah Ibrahim have released new albums reflecting the months of isolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Then there is the posthumous exit of Bheki Mseleku Beyond the stars.
While Covid-19 did not question his creative process, Mseleku’s music is a fitting healing elixir. Recorded in 2003, the album is the second by the late Durban-born sage on solo piano.
His first outing was Meditations in 1992, doing Beyond the stars the first appearance of new material of this type by Mseleku in nearly two decades. He died in 2008 in London, where he first settled in exile. In the British capital, he would have had access to the legacy of free jazz built by a previous wave of South African musicians who settled there in the 1960s. London also gave him easier access to musicians. Americans and Europeans on tour.
- A new look at Caluza’s work
This, coupled with a deep and ongoing search for ethereal portals in music, gave Mseleku a style of piano possessed by few people. This is at the heart of the near-sacred appreciation with which listeners received Beyond the stars, as well as the timeliness of its main message.
However, there is an argument to be made about the supremacy of the solo piano as a model in jazz. In South Africa as in other parts of the musical world, since the emergence of modern fashion, musicians and audiences alike have turned to solo piano performances to feed themselves beyond the cerebral, sensual and even of the spiritual. The language of the solo piano is built on hope and human vitality, making it the ideal format for this moment of pandemic.
In October 2021, as the southern hemisphere braced for an uncertain summer, master pianist and composer Ibrahim traveled north to a place of winter familiarity, the Hirzinger Hall in Riedering, in the south-eastern part of the country. Germany. The place is a personal pilgrimage site for Ibrahim, who returns there every year on October 9 to play a solo piano concert celebrating his birthday. He turns 87 this year.
But this year, Germany too was plagued by Covid-19 restrictions. This saw Ibrahim crouching alone in the room at the foot of the Alps to record Solitude, his latest solo piano offering. The image is Zen: here is a level sensei master of the Japanese martial art of budo, an elder statesman of jazz and a sound craftsman adept in trusting tradition, an age-old ritual and a duty to do good art in the face of uncertainty and distress.
The first single out of this session is a familiar tune, Bolero Blue. It is an elegant poetic melody to which Ibrahim constantly returns like a pilgrim towards a sacred space, an assured source of comfort and security. A first treatment appears on his trio album from 2001 African magic and in a solo setting, a quick and loose elaboration is done on its 2008 release Senzo. More recently, he does a series of brief haiku-like iterations on Dream time.
It’s certain Solitude that the Spanish ballad undoubtedly takes on a more studied, if not sacred, mode. This may be due to the solo piano’s ability to guide listeners through the complexity of embodied moments in history, a research ability to which Ibrahim returned several times.
Ibrahim released his first solo piano album in 1965, Reflections, which was also released as It’s the Dollar brand, making him a pioneer of form in South African jazz. He followed this up with African sketchbook and African Piano, both of which were recorded in 1969 during a season inspired by his life and a remarkably troubled time in South Africa, often referred to as high apartheid. The music on these early records embodies his polemics over the African roots of his art – ideas he spelled out in a newspaper column called “The World of Dollar”, which he wrote for a now-discontinued daily. Cape Herald. He single-handedly shaped much of what we consider to be the “Cape style” of jazz piano.
Since then, it has expanded its global footprint to forge an identity that spans its homes in Africa, Europe and New York. He has mastered a rare “ability to invent singable melodies from eccentric note choices and offbeat rhythms, as a composer and improviser,” Geoffrey Himes wrote in Declining magazine. This feat has earned him the right to be considered the only “true heir” to the legacy of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Like the two giants, he is able to “make the piano sound like an African singer by combining unusual notes to suggest sounds between keys, making big jumps in scales and knowing when to play and when not to play” . Himes wrote.
Ibrahim is more than a former jazz statesman. He is the pianist whose singular voice makes others think. “He’s the samurai and the piano is his sword,” joked the Durban Gonsalves-based composer and improviser, whose record Concert for a was released in April, just weeks after the initial strict lockdown in South Africa. Gonsalves was among the first musicians to turn to the piano for answers amid the uncertainty of the world.
Create order and give meaning
“In a way, what I was trying to do was create my own order, shape and design in my own little universe,” Gonsalves said. It numbers. The four-track album was recorded while the pianist was in isolation. Loneliness or loneliness can throw the individual into a tumultuous interiority, a condition that art best satisfies. As the African-American writer Albert Murray puts it, “the whole idea of art is to create a form that is a bulwark against entropy or chaos”.
As a result of this desire for order, Gonsalves’ game acquires a voluntarism. You can almost see the mental choices he makes as he moves from key to key, note to note. He gives us the piano as a job, like a sonic worker working hard to make sense of sound.
- Andre Petersen was selfless when it came to jazz
Mashiloane, based in Durban, released Ihubo Labomdabu, which translates to Native Hymn, in January as we wrap up our first summer of lockdown.
Speaking to jazz journalist Gwen Ansell, Mashiloane said, “During the lockdown, I really got a chance to listen to myself, be quiet, close my eyes and meditate. I have had the chance to reflect deeply on what I have seen, here and when I have traveled, and what the “natives” – blacks everywhere – are going through. When I sat at the piano in the midst of all this thinking, the messages of the music came through me from God, and I thank Him. I cannot claim them as mine.
More than an adept soloist, Mashiloane plays with the spirit of a producer. There is a permanent sense of a mind preoccupied with the larger form of the songs than with the note track it follows to get there. It’s a holistic approach that can perhaps be attributed to his early training while playing in religious groups.
Another notable album is Shepherd’s After the night, the day will surely come. It is made possible by its commercial collaboration with Matsuli music, allowing it to enter the booming vinyl market. Musically, the record benefited greatly from the growing activities of Shepherd, who composed film scores and worked as an accompanying pianist in William Kentridge’s touring theatrical productions. His unmistakable pedigree among his generation of jazz improvisers remains a central ingredient.
Shepherd is a gifted song stylist with deep roots in the Cape style. He puts all of this at the service of this work. However, the spirit of the music is guided by the axiom that there is revelation in improvisation – a propensity for the possible that it pursues with relentless enthusiasm. This keeps his dealing of familiar cards with suspicion and hope.
- South African pianist Kyle Shepherd’s journey to cinema
There are explorations of beloved and familiar melodies and tunes such as Sweet Zim Suite, Cry of the lonely and Desert monk. He constructs them from rhythmic individual bass notes with his left hand, while the melodic right plays freely, in turn modeling modal nuances and teasing charming fractal phrasing. The result is refreshing and joyful for the listeners, who are doing better.
Ultimately, we are reminded that a solo piano performance is a leap of faith, a meaningful musical proposition with the potential to steer alert listeners toward higher human ideals. It is a faith in the piano as a process; by daring to shape the sound into a coherent game of sonority, rhythm, inflection and phrasing, the pianist leads us on a path of greater discovery. And as we turn to other tokens of virtuosity from these and other pianists, this soloist art fills us all with a deeper humanism.