Cape Town - A distinctively Cape piano struts into life, some gentle percussion underneath it.
Then the horns, tenor sax and trombone begin singing a sweet melody over the top.
It’s gorgeous, quintessentially South African, yet at the same time there are European and American influences there too.
It swings, and it struts, and it mesmerises the ears.
The song is Grandmère Dansant (Grandma’s Dance), the standout song on multinational jazz quintet Skyjack’s debut album, simply titled Skyjack.
In March, they will be gracing the stage at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, no mean feat considering they have band members spread out across three continents: Europe, Africa and North America.
Sitting in Johannesburg jazz club The Orbit as some of his band mates sound check, Cape Town-based artist Kyle Shepherd tells me that the thing he really loves about being in Skyjack is the sharing.
He says that the band members can often be found swapping notes on musical theory.
The award-winning pianist and composer says that South African jazz musicians often come from a more intuitive place, whereas the Europeans in the group, tenor saxophonist Marc Stucki and trombonist Andreas Tschopp, have been schooled in musical theory from a young age.
Naturally, they have a lot to learn from each other.
Grandmère Dansant, says Shepherd, is a perfect example of the sharing nature of the collaboration that is Skyjack. “I first played that tune with Marc, as a duet,” he says.
In 2012 Shepherd found himself on a residency in the city of Bern in Switzerland.
There he met Stucki, a Bern resident who runs a small concert venue called the Sonarraum U64, and is a co-founder of the festival Jazzwerkstatt Bern. Which is how the two came to perform as a duet.
“My grandmother is still alive and she used to be quite the wild one,” says Stucki, filling us in on the inspiration. “I remember as a kid that she was always partying.”
With a smile, he adds, “She was an important person in my life. We spent a lot of time with her.”
That very South African lick
Stucki says his composition was driven by the desire to work with an easy sing-along melody over a really complex structure. The structure he is talking about is the wonderful South African rhythm, courtesy of Shepherd.
“That very South African lick, that’s Kyle, not me,” says Stucki laughing.
The same year that Stucki met Shepherd, he was talking to Swiss singer Andreas Schaerer with whom he started Jazzwerkstatt Bern.
Schaerer had recently performed at the Grahamstown Festival and told him about this rhythm section from South Africa he had met.
Jazzwerkstatt creates new bands for its line-up, so they decided to put together a band with the rhythm section, drummer Kesivan Naidoo and bassist Shane Cooper.
“We had a week to put together a show,” recalls Cooper.
“It was meant to just be trio, but then Marc decided to get his friend trombonist Andreas Tschopp in to join us for the second set,” he says.
“It was a really great gig,” says Stucki.
A year later Cooper was Standard Bank Young Artist of the year for jazz and had the opportunity again to work with Stucki and Tschopp.
The two Europeans flew out to join Naidoo and Cooper for rehearsals in Cape Town, but when they arrived there was a fifth, Kyle Shepherd.
Their forthcoming tour was booked as a quartet, but Shepherd wanted to play the Cape Town gig with the band.
After one rehearsal, they went into hustle mode, they had just become a quintet and they weren’t going out on the road without Shepherd.
“Kyle had to go home from rehearsal to pack,” recalls Cooper.
Capturing the spirit
Trombonist Tschopp is very soft-spoken. “For a horn player,” he says beaming back at me, “playing with a rhythm section like this is a dream.”
“What I love, is that they have incredible energy when they play and they work extremely well together, but as composers they write very different tunes.
“They all have a spiritual quality to their music,” says Tschopp.
I ask him what he loves about coming to South Africa.
“The jazz history is still so present in modern players,” he says. “Many musicians know all the songs of the old cats; we don’t have that in Switzerland.”
Stucki jumps in: “When you play with South African musicians, it always feels like the energy comes from the ground,” he says. “I love to play here ... I love the audience, I love their direct response to the music.”
He says South Africa has an incredibly educated jazz audience that includes many young people.
“In many venues in Europe you will mostly find 55- to 60-year-old men,” he says.
The duo rave about a Skyjack gig they played at the Afrikan Freedom Station.
“The music is the core of it, but all these things around are connected to the jazz music,” says Tschopp. “The way people network, the way they talk; people are conscious of these things.”
He says that in Europe the connection between jazz and political life doesn’t exist in the same way.
Tschopp spent three months in South Africa on a residency last year, during which he composed a
song titled The Hunter.
He has set it aside as a future Skyjack song.
The perfect synergy
“My tunes that I have written for the band have changed quite a lot,” Tschopp says. “I listened to a lot of South African music when I was in the country and perhaps The Hunter is my way of processing all of that.”
He says he loves composing for the band so that he can try incorporating the personalities of the musicians. “When there is a spot and I think it needs a tenor part, I can hear Marc’s sound, and the same with a piano part, I can hear Kyle’s sound,” he says. His composition The Last Rainbow Doesn’t Fade was like that. “Actually I built that song around Kyle,” he says with a grin.
Cooper says that Skyjack just had a perfect synergy from the beginning. “We were a unit,” he says. “I have a very good sense of the other members’ strengths.” He adds that his composition Tafattala was written with the two European horn players in mind. The song bears a resemblance to Ethiopian jazz and he admits he was listening to a lot of Mulatu Astatke while composing.
New York-based Naidoo has worked and recorded with Tschopp’s trombone teacher Adrian Mears.
“He was my hero on trombone,” Naidoo says of the Australian. “And then, meeting Andreas, it was like, wow; I mean he has his own style, but still at that high level of trombone playing.”
Turning his attention to Stucki; Naidoo says that he has a “massive” style on the tenor saxophone.
He says Stucki is the “older guy” in the band, the “pragmatic one”. “He keeps us grounded,” he adds, laughing.
“We want to try to come together once a year,” says Tschopp, discussing the future of Skyjack.
“Even twice a year,” adds Stucki, “once here and once in Europe.”
“We have already started to write new material,” adds Tschopp. “So it won’t be long till we’re ready for a new record.” He explains that being in Skyjack helps him evolve as a musician and as a human being.
“You can’t be a better musician than you are a human being,” quips Stucki.
After having spent the day with Skyjack, it is apparent that cross-cultural collaboration can be a richly rewarding endeavour when it is organic and equitable. In this case, it seems jazz is all the richer.
*There are still tickets available for the 18th annual Cape Town Jazz Festival, on from March 31 to April 1. For the full line-up, visit capetownjazzfest.com.
*To win sets of double tickets to the fest, SMS your name, surname, email address, province and the keyword JAZZ to 34217.