The atmosphere at the Baxter Theatre is electric. Throngs of people squeeze past one another as others greet old friends and acquaintances, leaving just enough room to move about. The air is filled with the expectancy of seeing one of the city’s most endearing young artists passionately exude his love for the bass guitar and jazz. His name is Jonathan Rubain and he knows how to draw a crowd.
The feat of a bassist filling this iconic venue to capacity is unparalleled. The bass is often the most ignored instrument in a band setup, but Rubain makes his instrument a focal point and reverently flips the status quo on its head. There is an old musician’s joke that says audiences commence idle banter when a bassist plays his solo. Not so with Rubain – he makes people roar with glee. He is a true showman who prances around like a rocker, an act unbecoming of the typical jazz musician, making no secret of his theatricality. I’m seated next to an aunty who delivers running commentary like she’s watching an episode of 7de Laan, “Speel dai bass Jonathan! Oe, kyk hoe wikkel hy sy biene!” That’s how much his community loves him.
Around 10 years ago Rubain sprang onto the scene as a bass-playing protégé whose name was on everyone’s lips. It seemed like everywhere you went people were talking about this kid who monstrously held his own alongside the giants of Cape Jazz. Under the tutelage of legends like Robbie Jansen and Mac McKenzie, Rubain began slowly grafting out his own niche. This influence is apparent in a Cape Jazz song called Robbie and another called Keep the Faith, both moving dedications to jazz heroes who left an indelible legacy.
Opting to build the event around guitar-driven instrumentals, one hardly misses the overt use of vocal accompaniment so commonly used to hype audiences into a nostalgic frenzy. Here Rubain uses his bass to play lead lines and singing melodies in place of what the vocalist would usually do, making a strong case for guitar music in a world saturated with words.
Apart from a solid band, I’m in Love with a Guitarist features a host of commendable guitarists like slap ‘n pop master Sammy Webber (another of Rubain’s early influences) and Dave Ledbetter, whose mature blend of Cape Jazz and country is a treat to the ears. Young guitar maestro Germaine Leonard also makes his impression as one to watch.
Rubain rounds off his presentation of formidable guitarists with an illustration of the next generation’s talents as he welcomes the Jazz Yard Academy to the stage – a group of youngsters from Bonteheuwel who rip through Santana’s Europa like seasoned professionals. Exhorting the value of passing the baton on to those who follow, Rubain makes it clear that his success is only due to his heroes having given him a chance.
I’m in Love with a Guitarist is a fitting homage to the scope and range of what is possible on the guitar and Rubain embodies it. As the audience rises to their feet, their tangible love of this type of music is both seen and felt – they’ve fallen in love with a guitarist.
I’m in Love with a Guitarist ran at the Baxter Theatre from 3 to 5 August 2017.