For lovers of jazz in South Africa, the last couple of years have borne depressingly witness to the passing of the old guard. The deaths of Robbie Jansen and Hotep Galeta last year and more recently Zim Nqawana, have struck huge blows to the music community. With baited breath we have been awaiting an indication of our musical future.
From the performance I just witnessed, I am assured that Ethan Smith is going to feature big in that future. He joins the new generation of musicians who carry the mantle of Cape Jazz icons such as Abdullah Ibrahim and Basil “Mannenberg” Coetzee whose sounds still echo in living rooms across this city.
Smith is no newcomer though, having played regularly across the city. His artistry has already been acknowledged by the Fine Music Radio Pick ‘n’ Pay Jazz award in 2009 following a year abroad studying in Norway. His quartet features no less than the eminent pianist Kyle Shepherd (with whom Smith has toured internationally) as well as drummer Claude Cozens, renowned for his no-holds-barred style and bass-player Brydon Bolton, a regular face in various jazz formations around the city and who was involved most recently in Mac Mckenzie’s Goema Orchestra.
I was lucky enough to catch them at the UCT College of Music – an intimate venue with great acoustics and not surprisingly a popular performing home for Cape Town’s young musos.
Smith and Shepherd opened the first set with a pensive Cape soundscape featuring Shepherd’s unmistakable Goema rhythms punctuated by Smith’s warm sax riffs. Drummer Cozens was then welcomed on stage but there was no light caressing of cymbals or delicate brushwork here, just an unnerving Goema-spirited beat which was almost as loud as Smith’s shirt.
From the concert flyer Smith is portrayed primarily as a saxophonist but it is on flute that he perhaps starts to break new ground. More refreshing than the initial saxophone-driven songs, the flute intimates a more personal atmosphere and requires less from the rest of the quartet, thereby shining a full spotlight on Smith’s artistry as a musician.
Despite the occasionally clichéd song titles the sincerity of the quartet is in no doubt. Prayer for Social Heroes is dedicated to those older generations who struggled against Apartheid. It reminds me of Shepherd’s tribute to struggle heroes Coline Williams and Robbie Waterwich entitled Coline’s Rose.
By this stage the mesmerized audience was in the palm of Smith’s hand. As if a group of shaman, the quartet transported us with a relentless trans-jazz, floating us in and out of the concert performance and metaphysical realms. Ode to Zim, a solemn solo on bass-flute dedicated to the late Zim Ngqawana, became the defining moment of the evening closely followed by Cozens’ drum solo a few moments later. Then a straight soprano sax introduced an Eastern feel, leading the hypnotized audience as a snake charmer leads his snake. Double bass player Bolton’s switch from finger to bow lent an authentic oriental sound to The Room, and the strong eastern theme continued, with occasional Confucius one-liners and Smith’s delicate mouthings on a Chinese flute.
It is said that in this city there’s a musician behind every tree. Indeed, such is the quality jazz talent on offer that for every successful pianist, saxophonist or guitarist there are hundreds more waiting to take their place. Right now it is Ethan Smith’s turn to step out of the shadows and take his place in the lineage of Mother City musicians. We can all breathe a sigh of relief – our jazz future is in good hands.