Kyle Shepherd releases 'South African History!X' on Thursday.

Jason Curtis

AS ONE of the country’s most talented pianists, saxophonists, composers and bandleaders, Kyle Shepherd, 25, is as much a musician as he is a guide into worlds few of us are even aware of. Through improvisation, rare skill and an overriding inquisitiveness, his latest Sheer Sound 13-track album, South African History !X, plays out as a critical history lesson all of us should invest in.

The jazz prodigy has already released three albums in less than four years and has played his culturally loaded music to audiences all over the world.

The good news is that tomorrow Shepherd’s heading home to launch his latest chapter at the Baxter.

“There’s a lot to work with,” he says of his new album’s contents.

“It’s a homage to the past, and the story of the Khoekhoe language (or Nàmá) once widely spoken by the Khoisan people. I’ve been interested in history from a young age, and this album is my humble nod to a remarkable people. I’ve written music to complement and highlight a language and culture that’s perilously close to being lost.”

So serious was Shepherd about capturing the language at its source that he headed out to record parts for Xan do do, a track on the new album, on location. “I added a piano improvisation and also composed a second part to another traditional song (Bobbejaan/Minstrels Go To Court). The ‘!X’ in the album title refers to the unknown, because so much of what appears on it is unfamiliar to most.”

Another highlight is a performance by the late great tenor saxophonist Zim Ngqawana on Cape Genesis, Movement 2. “I was blessed to have him play on the album before he passed,” Shepherd says.

“He’s sorely missed, but this track lives on in his absence. It’s a standout on every level.”

Shepherd’s two previous albums (2009’s fineART and 2010’s A Portrait Of Home, both nominated for the SA Music Awards) showcased the young jazz master’s talent to such an extent that he’s successfully toured with both albums in countries as far afield as Japan and Denmark. “The more I travel, the bigger my frame of reference becomes,” he elaborates.

“I’m a purist who acts like a sponge, absorbing everything around me. It all ultimately affects the music I compose and perform.”

As for playing live, Shepherd loves nothing more than adding layers on stage to the tracks on his three albums. “Each song is a document, frozen in time. So when I sit down to perform any of them live, they come out differently to what I captured in studio on the day I recorded them. I tend to keep adding tiers to what was. No one song will ever be played as it was when I recorded it and I love that aspect of what I do. That’s the beauty of capturing something and committing it to tape – recording a piece of music that’s etched as a trace in time the second the last chord is played.

“Composing, recording and playing jazz music is home for me,” he adds. “I can’t do anything else. It was a natural choice to settle into the genre because it’s the only one that affords people like me the opportunity to manipulate and reshape our work – over and over and over again.

“No other style of music is structured quite this way, or arguably poised enough, to give that level of perpetual ownership and licence.”

Between albums, Shepherd’s directed and co-written the music for the award-winning theatre production Afrikaaps. He’s also been commissioned to compose a new work for the music production Die Buitestaanders by Mareli Stolp and Magdalene Minnaar. “It’s tiring,” he says of the pace at which his passion pushes him. “I might start to slow down a little. I don’t want to burn out. Music asks a lot of you, so balance is important.”

South African History !X may be brand-new, but the tracks on it are not. “It’s been a year since we recorded them,” Shepherd explains.

“I would have preferred it if they had been released last year, so it’s a relief that the album is finally out. I’m curious to see how it’s interpreted and even more anxious to perform these songs live. I haven’t played them since we recorded and I’ve grown so much since then. It’ll be interesting to see how they reveal themselves on the night.”

What Shepherd lacks in years as a professional musician, he more than makes up for in vast quantities of God-given talent. What’s more, he’s keen to acknowledge and honour his peers and forefathers at every turn.

“Without the elders, where would any of us be?” he asks. “They inspire me to produce even better work than what I have released so far. My best work is yet to come.”

Joining Shepherd on stage at the Baxter at 8.30pm are Buddy Wells on sax, Shane Cooper double bass, Jonno Sweetman drums, Darren English trumpet and flugelhorn, and Ethan Smith on alto sax.

l Tickets are R90, students and senior citizens R80. To book, call Computicket at 0861 915 8000.