The only thing the people who’ve used the phrase “Now Listen Properly” have in common is their musicality. At this moment, the phrase is the album title of SA’s very own swing jazz band, Swing City.
The one thing the band members who I met wanted to make very clear, was that they don’t actually consider themselves jazz musicians. I met with two-thirds of the band, Graeme Watkins and Nathan Ro (Loyiso Bala is not with us for this chat), and this is something they feel would upset the jazz fraternity just a little bit.
A music outfit that began as a passion project after a chat at a braai, Swing City has recently been nominated for a Sama in the Best Adult Contemporary music category, something the band welcomes with their usual quick witted sense of humour.
“How do we feel about what? Losing?” Ro says with a tongue-in-cheek type smile, when Watkins steps in and says: “It’s amazing. Firstly, if we just establish the birth of the Swing City project, first and foremost, we thought it would be something incredibly fulfilling to do. Nathan and I had parents with swing backgrounds. Our parents were swingers - no pun intended. We thought we should show love for the genre,” Watkins said.
The group went deliberately for the Rat Pack feel. The Rat Pack refers to a group of performers of the 1950s-1960 centred around Las Vegas, namely Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop among others.
For Swing City, they regard live performances as the best places to experience the finest of the band, where, like their inspiration the Rat Pack, they mix a fiery stage presence, perfectly laced with humour, with killer vocals.
Their first album Well Swung in 2015 was an exploration of all the music they associated with swing, and they then shortened the list to make the album.
“It’s grown exponentially. And anyway, Dean and Sammy over here needed someone with a Frank Sinatra style following. So that’s why we got Loyiso,” Ro finishes with a laugh.
With Now Listen Properly, the band wanted to create a truly South African album, and that they did. It has a mixture of the classics like the Smile medley, Fly Me To The Moon and uniquely South African jams with foot tapping worthy arrangements like Paradise Road by Joy, a remake of Sun In My Pocket by Locnville and a retouch of Lira’s Feel Good.
“Well Swung was originally going to be our name, but we decided that might be a little hectic. That went well, and that was predominantly directed by ourselves. A lot of the harmonies and song choices were selected by ourselves.
“We actually got our first booking before even getting together in a rehearsal,” Ro said.
On the classification of the band as jazz musicians Watkins explained: “We’ve completely separated ourselves from the jazz market. Our musical director Dave Cousens is possibly one of the finest young jazz minds in the country.
“We just see the way he approaches the music in classic jazz formula. It’s quite mathematical and precise. And the jazz police sit and take notes, and they arrest jazz offenders.”
He continues: “If you look at what swing was, it was basically a bunch of guys who were rock stars in their own right, who came together to perform this crazy genre, where they spoke their minds on stage and gave themselves the freedom to take jabs of each other, and the audience enjoyed that.
“So calling us a jazz swing band places us in the jazz genre or the swing genre, and that I think does a little disservice to the brand. I think we’ve transcended that. Not that we haven’t taken it seriously, but we haven’t taken it seriously to the point that it’ll hurt people’s feelings,” he said.
According to the pair, jazz musicians are like a group of brain surgeons.
The calibre of the musicians in the band which supports Swing City is that of brain surgeons when it comes to jazz, while the three categorise themselves as two nurses (or porters) and an ambulance driver. This is the analogy the band carried for the afternoon to explain their relationship to jazz.
While it remains to be seen just how much further in they will take it, their love for swing will keep this three singin’. And that, for the sake of their beautiful harmonies, is all we can ask for.
* Now Listen Properly is available at all major music stores and all reliable digital platforms.