Maria Schneider

‘THIS is is a unique festival, unlike anything I have seen in the world. You can be very proud of it.”

That is a quote from Maria Schneider about the Standard Bank Jazz Festival, Grahamstown, and the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival, which run parallel to each other.

Schneider has just won the Best Big Band, Composer and Arranger categories in the Down Beat Critics’ Poll, while her latest CD, Winter Morning Walks, won three Grammy awards.

There were 330 students and teachers plus 90 musicians from South Africa and 12 other countries for Jazz Fest. During the day the youth were auditioned for bands such as the National Youth Jazz Band and the National School Big Band. There was also a vocal centre for solo artists and choirs.

The workshops and master classes were taught by local and overseas artists for each instrument, plus sight-reading classes, improvising to mixing recorded tracks, rap and adding loops and samples to music.

Rehearsing and sound balances for afternoon and evening concerts were part of the day, which started at 9am.

All eyes and ears were focused on Schneider’s two concerts, which were sold out. Her orchestra combined South African and Norwegian musicians which included the Ensemble Denada, while local musicians Marcus Wyatt, Dan Shout, John Davies and Melissa van der Spuy proved they were world class.

At one rehearsal Schneider didn’t like the acoustics of the room so she had the orchestra rehearse outside under a tree. She knows what she wants and extracts it from the individual and the sections. When she calls for the music to be played piano (“p”, soft) she means double piano (“pp”, softer). Her conducting is visual and fascinating and the joy she gets out of listening to a soloist is evident. Her pièce de résistance is Cerulean Skies which, she explains, is about the migration of birds.

I was surprised to see Dawn Lindberg at the one concert. She said: “Don, I don’t like jazz.” So I asked why she was there. “Because there is so much fuss going on about this woman,” she replied. She listened and, obviously impressed, asked me: “How does one write jazz like that?” “Genius,” I answered. Almost dazed, she asked at the end what was written and what was improvised. I told her, and I think she now has a different attitude towards jazz music.

Because of space limitations, I can’t go into detail about the many other highlights, but that’s the way the quavers fall and I apologise.

Here are some: the sublime tone of Bertil Strandberg’s trombone-playing and how he and Buddy Wells’s tenor combined; how Melanie Scholtz has developed from being a jazz vocalist into a suave artiste; the Rondebosch Big Band with the finest saxophone section yet heard from schoolboys; the unbelievable music and sounds created by cellist Ernst Reijseger, pianist Harmen Fraanje and vocalist and mbira Mola Sylla.

Reijseger uses a five-string cello and played all over the instrument from pure and delicate arco to scraping on the peg to playing the instrument like a guitar over his knee or tapping it like bongos. He took cello to places it has never been before, from Afro to avant-garde.

Nick Smart took the SA Tribute Big Band through its paces, plying the music mostly of Dudu Pukwana and Mongezi Feza arranged by Stuart Hall in the manner of Brotherhood of Breath and the Dedication Orchestra. When the voice of Tutu Puoane was added, things jumped up a step and they used some of the repertoire she recorded on the CD Mama Africa.

Tenor man Mike Rossi got in the best solo of the night; bassist Banz Oester and the Rainmakers featuring Afrika Mkhize; Brian Tusi’s 14-year-old tenor player Moses, who is going to ruffle feathers, and the drum workshop of American Jeff Siegel.

Mention has to be made of Alan Webster, the man who made all the magic happen. He’s going to have to find a new wand because this year has set the standard so high. One thing is certain, though, his team makes everything run so smoothly, from meals to transport and any problem that might arise. Thank you for this inspiring event.