Story and Photos by James Walker, Jr.
Spending time in the "Motherland" has always been an emotional and exciting
experience and on this occasion, it was my first time visiting the "Other
Africa",.....South Africa. My seventeen-day visit coincided with the 11th
annual Cape Town Jazz Fest, and it was a memorable experience that I plan to
repeat next year.
Thousands of jazz fans flocked to Cape Towns' International Convention Center
Easter weekend to witness dozens of International and South African artists
perform across five venues within this impressive Hall. Each day consisted of
eight-plus hours of exhilarating sounds that left capacity crowds in a frenzy.
South African vocalist Judith Sephuma kicked off the "Kippies" main stage
performance with a mixture of jazz, R&B, and gospel tinged sounds that really
excited this standing room only crowd. She's a local favorite and had the
audience responding back to her as she chanted in her native language. This was
an excellent entree into this two day gala.
From there, I was off and running upstairs to the "Rosies" stage to see veteran
multi-reedist Charles Lloyd and his exceptional "New Quartet" of drummer Eric
Harland, bassist Reuben Rogers, and young veteran pianist Jason Moran. This set
really was an event highlight with master Lloyd wowing the crowd from start to
finish with vintage sounds, reminiscent of his glory days during the 60s and
70s. Moran's presence added to this exceptional set.
South African Marcus Wyatt and his "Language 12" was my next group to catch at
still another stage, "Moses Molelekwa." I had no idea of what to expect as this
was my first time viewing this 'Rock/Funk/Jazz" tinged aggregate. I was not
disappointed as they "rocked" the house with a variety of sounds, complemented
by the serious vocals of Siya Makuzeni.
My first day at the fest concluded back at the main stage where Cape Town native
and internationally renowned vocalist/guitarist Jonathan Butler held court
accompanied by his American colleagues, saxophonist Richard Elliot and
trumpeter Rick Braun. The crowd loved Butler's rendition of "Smooth Jazz"
selections along with "old school" South African numbers done in his native
dialect. Butler's a crowd favorite no matter what part of the world he's
performing in. Being home in Cape Town was very emotional and special for him.
Sultry South African vocalist Lira instantly heated up the audience on Day 2 on
the main stage with a variety of Pop, R&B, and Jazzy numbers. This young phenom,
attired in a beautiful multi-colored long dress had complete command of the
audience from the moment she stepped on the stage. By the time she concluded her
90 minute set, the crowd was in a frenzy with her infectious and captivating
styling. Ms. Lira needs to bring this act to the States for an extended tour.
What a talented entertainer.
Lira was followed on the main stage by veteran American vocalist Rachelle
Ferrell. Initially, she had difficulty with the sound system, but nevertheless,
worked through a "sound check" while improvising with the audience. Not to many
vocalist could have pulled that off but Rachelle didn't miss a beat as she eased
into her set demonstrating her wide ranging abilities to scat, chirp and work
out on the 88s. She's a pro and obviously loves what she does. She concluded her
set with an extended "call and response" with drummer John Roberts that was
electrifying as she worked the hell out of her time keeper.
Perhaps my most pleasant surprise of the two days was the performance by
songstress Melanie Schultz. She's a pure jazz vocalist with a sweet sultry
instrument. Playing in front of a standing room only crowd in the spacious
Molelekwa Room, she, along with her excellent band simply mesmerized the crowd
with her artistic integrity and creative passion. This Cape Town classically
trained stylist surely has a bright future and hopefully will be heard from in
the USA. Special kudos also must be given to saxophonist Buddy Wells, who
demonstrated in his cool style why he's considered one of South Africa's finest.
My evening concluded with the highly anticipated set by vocalist/guitarist
George Benson at the main stage. I was barely able to snake up to the stage area
as Benson was wowing the audience with some of his all time hits. Benson is as
effective today as he was back in the 60s and 70s when he revolutionized jazz
with his singing and playing. The combination of his velvet vocals with his
fleet finger-work on the guitar created an electrifying performance.
A perfect conclusion to two days of phenomenon performances by forty two
groups. There was something for everyone to enjoy. The organizers of this event
are to be complemented and I'm already planning to return next year for the 12th
annual gala that's staged at the tip of southern Africa, in what has to be one
of the most beautiful world class cities.