The leader’s impressive virtuosity and brilliant solo improvisations were well complemented by the other two members of the trio
Over 20 years ago, when apartheid was still alive and kicking, I had the supreme pleasure of hearing the great Abdullah Ibrahim, the pianist who went into exile to pursue his vocation and take the message of his oppressed country to the world, as many other South African jazz musicians did. He was perhaps the greatest of the country’s musicians to impress aficionados and jazz elders alike, foremost among them Duke Ellington. After the country’s first free elections nearly two decades ago, many of them including Ibrahim himself returned to the country, which then seemed to drop out of the jazz world’s consciousness, leading some to wonder how South African jazz was getting along.
Kyle Shepherd could contribute to providing an answer to that question. He’s a slim young man with a slight goatee beard whose virtuosity on the piano belies his relative youth. Hailing from Cape Town, the jazz capital of South Africa, he counts among his influences, who else? — Abdullah Ibrahim. He was on a tour of selected Indian cities late last month, accompanied by Sebastiaan Kaptein from the Netherlands on drums and Seigo Matsunaga of Japan, an alumnus of the famed Berklee College of Music, Boston, on double bass. When he performed at B Flat Bar in Bangalore, he actually used a digital keyboard instead of a piano, while Matsunaga played an electric version of his instrument – upright and tall like the acoustic bass, but with its sound box cut out and replaced by a pick-up connected to an amplifier.
The Shepherd Trio performed nine numbers, including three encores, most of which were not named by their leader. The first piece was identified by name (“City Monk”) and so were two others: “Dream State” and “Manenberg” (composed by Ibrahim), which Shepherd described as South Africa’s unofficial national anthem and which yours truly is familiar with. Most of the others were probably original Shepherd compositions.
Although at one point he expressed his unhappiness with having to play a keyboard instead of a genuine acoustic piano, leading the hostess Arati Rao to declare that the next time she would break down B Flat’s narrow doors down to bring in the real McCoy, he in fact started off his concert by setting the keyboard to the tone of an electric piano, something he couldn’t have done with the real thing.
Many of the tunes had insistent rhythms derived from South African jazz or the country’s traditional music, including “Manenberg”. This number in fact started off as a different tune which developed into a long piano solo and then ended with the famous tune. Like it, most of the other pieces were in brisk or medium tempos, but one number started off with a contemplative tune. He prefaced it by saying he was introducing a traditional instrument, which was a long wooden stick (it’s name as well as I could make out sounded like “tharoo”) which had an onion-shaped bulb at one end into which he blew the notes, while occasionally tapping it with a small metal stick. He switched back to the keyboard midway through the piece.
Most of the numbers had longish piano solos, while on the opening piece Kaptein got a chance to slip in a drum solo between two solos on the piano. Matsunaga didn’t get in any solo improvisations, which was a pity, because his upright bass has a beautiful tone, very close to that of the acoustic bass and far superior, to my ears, to that of the electric bass guitar preferred by most musicians who don’t want to tote a large instrument around.
As it was, this was a concert in which one could say that the leader’s virtuosity and brilliant solo improvisations were impressive, while the other two members of the trio showed themselves to be competent and able in support. A glimpse of what South African jazz, which has kept a rather lower profile than in the pre-liberation days, has been up to since then, but no more than a glimpse.