The Interview – Kyle Shepherd: Lean, lone, lofty keeper of the flame

2013-10-22 08:00

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The Standard Bank Young Artist Awards were announced this weekand Kyle Shepherd finally scoopedone for jazz. Percy Mabandu sat down with him in Cape Town

It’s hard to stand out in the hurly-burly of the Sunday noon shopping bustle at Canal Walk in Cape Town. But not for Kyle Shepherd, the newly announced Standard Bank young artist winner for jazz. He cuts a lean, lone and lofty figure amid the scurrying crowd.

Staring at them, his left hand plays with his short beard while his right rests fisted in his jacket.

We meet just two days before the official announcement of his prize. As we chat, the bitter bite of the espresso is balanced by the tender tonalities of his voice. This is not to say Shepherd pussyfoots around when it comes to speaking his mind. Far from it.

The 26-year-old muso speaks with the measured intensity of a warrior monk. Asked about the meaning of the award and its impact on his practice, he says: “The restlessness inside me can never accept somebody else saying ‘well done’.

No way. I’m severely sober-minded about what I do. I’m so hard on myself about what I’m searching for inside the music and not achieving.

“Though I’m thankful for the financial part, I most need it so that I can record two albums next year. I have material for three or four, but not the means,” he says.

This is his first award since he burst on to the scene with his 2008 album Fine Art.

At best, his recordings A Portrait ofHome and South African History!X received the SA Music Award nominations for Best Newcomer and Best Traditional Jazz, respectively.

That he is only receiving a Standard Bank Award now is a tad controversial. It comes after the successful release of three headline albums and an incessant list of bookings and collaborations across the world.

It’s way more success than that achieved by any of the winners since Shepherd arrived on the scene.

None of these had recorded an album of their own and none had shown as much prowess as a band leader.

Shepherd stands head and shoulders above almost anyone else of his generation. Arguably, while many are producing jazz in South Africa, Shepherd is bent on producing South African jazz. His latest album is perhaps the most exemplary.

The young virtuoso straddles a sound that references an ancient Khoisan heritage, Nguni sonic sensibilities and the Americanised swing of

the global jazz experience.

Think here of tracks like Xam Premonitions, Slave Labour (Cape Genesis, Movement 2), Tshawe, and Sound Portraitof a Modern African Man. Tshawe, interestingly, is the ruling house of all the Xhosa people.

But this has often resulted in Shepherd being passed over for “sounding like Abdullah Ibrahim”. This, according to him, is “a problem of reductionist thinking that shows a lack of depth in a lot of people, especially journalists”.

He says: “If you come from New York and you show elements of the past in your playing, it’s applauded. We say, ‘Wow! This guy has the history of jazz piano under his fingers.’ Here (in SA), it’s the opposite.”

He remembers how, when he was studying at the University of Cape Town (UCT), he came up against naysayers who tried to dissuade him from his chosen path.

“They kept saying: ‘Why do you want to play like Abdullah? Why so much tradition? Why so much Cape Town?’ But actually, I was being as much of myself as I could be at 19. That was my point of reference. I had known Abdullah from three years old and why wouldn’t I study his music? Besides, he is the master of this tradition and style of piano. It’s life. You take on traits of your parents until you evolve your own.”

His mother, Mechell Shepherd, is a violinist who toured with Ibrahim and taught at M7, the academy established by the elder pianist. The academy gave young Shepherd a healthy link to a grand musical tradition.

He quit in the second year of what would have been a four-year degree at UCT. Then he found a new school – the late Zim Ngqawana’s farm.

An invitation to participate in a jazz workshop at the Zimology Institute led to a residency, a longer residency and then a creative partnership between the young master and Ngqawana.

“I knew I had to seek that kind of guidance from somebody like him,” says Shepherd. “He influenced not only my music but my life. The word ‘open-minded’ feels a bit clichéd and too narrow to describe him. He taught a way of thinking that expands your world view.”

In fact, Shepherd says he regards his three albums as a trilogy that honours Ngqawana.

Reflecting on his mission as a musician, Shepherd is clear about his purpose. “My goal ultimately is for all my learning to culminate into a modern South African music. Not just jazz, but an in-depth reflection of a deep-rootedness here and an understanding of music from elsewhere.

This should be carried by a command of compositional techniques and proficient playing.”

Emerging from the fire of authentic South African jazz, the 26-year-old is in every sense the keeper of the flame.

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