A big blue glob of sound hangs over the DSG precinct with the cool of blue branded banners. The Standard Bank Jazz Festival just kicked off and this part of Grahamstown has been christened #JazzTown.
There’s a hallowed gathering of youth wearing dreams of stardom on their sleeves. Many walk with extra limb – shimmering trumpets and saxes that sparkle with the hope in their hearts. A mix of vicious competition and empathetic brotherhood mark each of their genial faces. By the time you read this, the best among them will have been chosen to form part of the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band, and the National School’s Big Band.
At lunch hour, which many casually ignore in deference to more ethereal feeding, I’m huddled among them in the DSG Auditorium to see Carlo Mombelli, take them through his difficult charts. As this year’s conductor of the National Youth Jazz Band, he has prepared some of his angular compositions for the nervous gathering of hopefuls. They take turns playing in different formations. At every turn, he screams out: new drummer, or new bass player, change horn section. They comply and play like their very lives are at stake. “I’m interested in people who can tell a story with their instruments,” says the soft spoken, Mombelli. “If you can play one note that can touch a spirit, to me that’s more important than a million notes that mean nothing.” A new spell is loosed upon the horde.
Later in the day, with the ring and chime of month-end coins giving a spring to their steps as they strut the streets of Grahamstown, more jazz lovers arrive in #JazzTown for drinks and dance. Sakhile Moleshe’s Soul Housing Project is the first gig on the bill. Their brand of jazz is as vibrant, youthful and promiscuous in its genre bending approach. Moleshe is at once a conductor, rapper and singer, even dancing mascot for the band. “Beautiful,” is the word issued by every second pair of lips.
Next up Brazilian outfit, Trio Corrente ascends to the stage with an equally charged but different set of tricks. They take apart familiar tunes to explore and experiment with intricacy. Tricky time signatures, sharp chord changes are the order of business. The audience is savvy. The only recognisable feature of a familiar tune, Girl from Ipanema is the head, which few attempt to hum along with the band. Then we are taken on a joyous journey through polyrhythm and complex harmony. This is serious music. However, the band’s capacity for clever comedy is a reminder that jazz is actually fun. By the time Claude Cozens take to the field jazz lovers are ready for a kind of ascension, and are moved. What a joy!!