If there is anyone in South Africa who should be the leader of an “arkestra”, the way Sun Ra (jazz composer, pianist) was, Carlo Mombelli (pictured) is that man. Sun Ra’s The Arkestra (a play on the word “orchestra”) was an ensemble with an ever-changing line-up and name.
He has a natural attraction to improvised performance and a refreshing freedom in sound seldom seen among musicians here, yet he remains one of the most underrated talents this country has produced.
“Am I a jazz musician,” Mombelli asks me honestly, “because I don’t know if I am.”
This kind of arkestraesque band leadership is evident in the weekly workshops Mombelli runs in Joburg at the Bassline every Wednesday night. Initiated in September the idea is that, for not more than R10, people of all ages, backgrounds and levels of musicianship can sign up and play new, free music on a regular basis.
Mombelli explains: “I call it The Lab of Learning. It’s absolutely fantastic. I do a performance first and then the floor is open to everyone. People register in a book, with their name, instrument and style of music. Then I build a concert which becomes the jam session with everyone I have, putting people and combinations together.
“I host and present them as their band leader and design this musical canvas on the spot and it’s beautiful. People go from folk guitar to heavy free jazz, then to African rhythms.
“We have so many students from Afda who are studying pop music, and then those from Wits who are studying jazz and I fuse them all together. It’s a really cool vibe and I get to play every week.”
Despite having started in September, the official launch of The Lab of Learning will be next month. Through the workshops, Mombelli met singer Mbuso Khoza whom he invited to record an album with him in Switzerland.
Mombelli assimilates easily into the role of mentor and teaches at the Wits music department where he workshops improvisation techniques. He says: “The Wits music department as a whole is amazing because they do electro acoustic music where students find ways to make music with lead pencils connected to computers, for instance, or jazz musicians will study Bach and classical musicians would do improvisation.”
Next month, Mombelli releases his latest album, called Stories, which riffs on his talent as a masterful storyteller. He says: “Mbuso, who sings on my record, for instance, came to the jam session and I heard this guy sing and said: ‘Do you want to come to Europe with me to record?’ The album was mixed via Skype and recorded live in the studio, with Mbuso improvising over every-thing. He brought a rawness to that session; he never sings a note out of place, it’s amazing.”
As the title suggests, the album is a storybook of anecdotes told by Mombelli.
He says there is even a documentary filmmaker who follows him around Joburg and was lucky enough to follow him all the way to Switzerland to get footage of the album recording.
On a visit to Cape Town with his family, Mombelli decided to include a few performances at The Mahogany Room where he linked up with jazz musicians drummer Kesivan Naidoo, pianist Kyle Shepherd and saxophonist Mark Fransman. To Mombelli’s surprise, there was a huge demand for his gig, thus an extra performance had to be added. He says that while he is based in Joburg, some of his favourite musos are in Cape Town.
It is not unusual to hear Joburg based jazz musicians lament the lack of venues to perform in that aren’t restaurants with clichéd jazz brunches where people are usually more concerned with what’s on their plate than listening, and certainly no one is queueing anywhere to see anyone perform.
However, Mombelli is positive. He says Joburg is constantly changing and that a revamped Bassline and a new venue for jazz heads opening in Braamfontein this year means hope for musicians.
• Mombelli’s new album Stories is out next month.