Kyle Shepherd

Theresa Smith

Jazz artists don’t come more unassuming than Kyle Shepherd. His quiet demeanour belies an articulate sense of where he’s coming from, but you’d never think “award-winning” when you pass him on the street.

The 24-year-old musician quietly crept on to the jazz circuit back in 2005 when he won an FMR/Pick n Pay Travel award for Best Original Composition and made his presence felt with the SA Music Award-nominated offering, fineART, in 2008.

That first album almost didn’t see the light of day when he couldn’t find a record label to sign him up as an artist, so he created his own.

Today Shepherd has had to outsource his third album’s distribution to Sheer Sound and his music is available for legitimate digital download the globe over.

He has toured as far afield as Japan, Norway and France, and performed at The Bird’s Eye Jazz Club in Switzerland, The Aarhus Jazz Festival and the Riverboat Jazz Festival in Denmark, the Genting International Jazz Festival in Malaysia, and yes, he’s played at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

The multi-instrumentalist has also performed as either pianist or saxophonist with some of SA’s musical greats such as Zim Ngqawana and Robbie Jansen, as well as McCoy Mrubata, Hilton Schilder and Mark Fransman, to name just a few.

Oh, and he’s taken to playing the xaru (mouth bow) as well.

But, when you’re talking to musicians, it is his compositional ability that wows critics and right from the get-go he has been lauded for the way he draws on the myriad influences of SA music to create an impressionist painting all his own.

This week he launches his third album, South African History !X (his second, Portrait of Home, received a Sama nod for Traditional Jazz) which sees him deconstruct goema, reimagine Afrikaans volkliedjies and even draw heavily on langarm.

“It’s by no means revivalism of the sounds of the past, but I do feel it is important, especially at this stage of my career, to pay respects to certain traditions, and whenever possible, play that music… fuse is a word I hate… but to fuse modern jazz techniques within this music so that you can take something like langarm and use new techniques of improvisation over that,” explained Shepherd.

This particular style is very different to what he does with his trio (Shane Cooper and Jonny Sweetman) which ventures into uncharted territory, “and that’s the beauty of that style”.

Shepherd listens to a wide palette of music, from Radiohead to traditional Moroccan music, or drum and bass, but with this album he deliberately expresses his love for music from southern Africa.

Three albums in Shepherd doesn’t so much have a process as a preference when it comes to choosing what to record. He is always writing, which means that he has a large body of work to draw on, so once he had decided on a theme, he and fellow artists Cooper, Buddy Wells and Sweetman got together to record in January last year, though this is not a concept album by any stretch of the imagination.

The album’s name, South African History !X, draws on Shepherd’s love of film: “I thought it quite a provocative title, but also attached my own meaning to it.

“Malcolm X said, about choosing his surname, that it’s because x in mathematics represents the unknown, and his language and ancestry was unknown to him.

“I just feel in South African history, especially for young people, the truth behind it remains largely unknown, and I’ve been, for a long time now, really dedicated to uncovering that history.”

Three of the tracks are linked as the Cape Genesis Movement and he will use them as basis for a new composition. His brief is to create “a portrait of Cape Town” for a Paris-based music festival in September next year.

“Obviously when I recorded this album I had no idea I would be expanding that. The suite is sort of tracking the history of Cape Town chronologically.

“The first part is Xam Premonitions, paying homage to the First Nation people. The second movement is called Slave Labour, which has the great Zim Ngqawana recording on there, and that was quite an honour.

“The third movement is called Cape Flats Lament and it’s in many ways a regretful reflection on what the Cape Flats has become, this sadness I feel for it. There’s a lot of beauty that has come out of it, but there’s also the opposite.

“It’s a lament, but there’s a hopefulness in it.”

He places great weight on the importance of tradition and though his own music is evolving at a rapid pace, he really wants to be sure about being firmly grounded: “I’m really using this time to put my roots further down in that soil.

“My generation and younger don’t know these things. I have a young brother, 14 years old, he doesn’t know Die Maan Skyn so Helder Vanaand, he doesn’t know the history, or about people like Autshumato or Krotoa, or important historic figures.

“So we, the few of us who have been interested in it, we have to become the historians wherever we go.”

Kyle Shepherd launches South African History !X at The Baxter Concert Hall, Rondebosch tomorrow at 8.30pm. Tickets: R90, R80 for students and pensioners.Book at www.computicket.com or call 0861 915 8000