REVIEW: 20th Joy of Jazz festival


Rebecca Swift

Rebecca Swift is a nom de plume.
Rebecca Swift

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20th Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival
20th Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival

The 20th Joy of Jazz festival is upon us, with a varying and impressive lineup of musicians from many parts of the world, forcing thousands of jazz fans to descend upon the Sandton Convention Centre. And I’ll begin right there …

It took us an hour to drive two blocks in Sandton this Friday evening, trying to get to the parkade at Sandton City. The roads were complete anarchy, with very few drivers adhering to the rules of the road, and taxis multiplying the havoc they usually create on our roads. It began to feel as if Sandton is the place where people go when they’ve been kicked out of hell.

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If the WineX expo can arrange for the Gautrain to operate till midnight during its run, then why, with all its sponsors, can the Joy of Jazz not do something similar?
It defies all logic that we have this state-of-the-art transport system running to and from the heart of Sandton which serves only daytime commuters. This really is something which the JoJ organizers need to look at seriously in the future.

We also surely have a large force of traffic officers, but their primary function nowadays seems to be limited to soliciting bribes for made up offences from unsuspecting drivers. There was not one traffic officer or vehicle present or visible during all of this chaos as helpless drivers sat fuming in stationary vehicles, completely trapped. Just plain unacceptable. But on to the actual festival.

I love this event, with its four venues featuring some of the best jazz artists the world has to offer, where you can wander from stage to stage taking in as much as you want of one act and moving on to explore another. The R795 cost per ticket is certainly well worth it, no argument.

For once I was happy that the first acts started late since, despite the 10 doors to the venue, only three were open, with each ticket being checked via mobile phone light. Better efficiency would be most appreciated by patrons eager to get to the music.
Each floor has a bar selling a limited variety of beverages, but be warned: if whiskey is your drink, you will pay dearly. If Glenlivet wants to turn me on to its brand then they will have to sell whiskey for a more attractive price than R100 per tot. The barmen also charged for tap water mix, which is ridiculous.

The Sandton convention centre is perfect for this event, with escalators, elevators and stairs on every floor, and excellent restrooms which were serviced throughout the night.
It’s a good idea to study the program carefully as there are so many different acts
on offer and it is impossible to see them all, unless you have a ticket for all three
days of the festival.

We started off with Nnenna Freelon on the Dinaledi stage. Her great voice, quirky stage presence and amusingly warm banter endeared her to the audience, and the musicianship of the excellent band is not in doubt. People have their own individual parameters regarding how far one can stretch the creativity of a jazz standard. Personally, if a song is only recognizable by virtue of the lyrics and nothing else, then it is a step too far. My partner disagrees. Freelon is a charming entertainer and clearly a consummate musician, but her versions of Nature Boy and Say A Little Prayer were probably my least favourite versions ever. My opinion.

I have twice seen Abdullah Ibrahim play live, so we left the Dinaledi room and moved to the Conga stage for Elisabeth Kontomanou, an American singer of French descent, seven albums to her credit, and an impressive list of musical collaborations. Her three-piece band would have been better served by a sound engineer who knows the difference between a piano and pianissimo. Twice we had to ask for the piano to be turned up. Fantastic pianist (no name in the program) to a rather self-indulgent singer.

From there we moved onto the Diphala stage for the exceptional Clayton Brothers. Saxophonist John Clayton, bass player Jeff, and his son Gerald on piano form the core of this ensemble. Terell Stafford on trumpet and Obed Calvaire on drums help complete easily the tightest unit of the entire festival with absolute ease. A complete joy to see and hear. This was definitely one of two highlights for me and an absolute treat to watch.

We then popped in to catch a bit of Salif Keita on the Conga stage. The venue was absolutely packed, but the lighting was overpowering, the band was large, and the sound was dodgy and heavy on the high end. We would have loved to listen to more than half of a song, but the sound made it difficult to stay.

Those who weren’t grooving to Keita were definitely there to see the legendary Branford Marsalis on the Dinaledi stage, and suddenly the vast room was full.
This was the highlight for many last night, and I include myself. Marsalis charmed me 30 years ago with his work on Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtle album, but there’s also talk of his arrogance and ego. Whatever. If there is a better horn player anywhere I won’t believe it. Again, my opinion, but his tone and fluidity are simply jaw dropping. With Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Justin Faulkner on drums this ensemble just couldn’t put a foot wrong and I’m a bigger fan today than I was yesterday.

The Joshua Redman quartet came on some time after midnight (and this is something that organizers are going to have to address in future) and the eager audience managed to hang in for most of his set. Redman on tenor sax is insanely adept, and with pianist Aaron Goldberg, bass player Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, they kept the crowd in awe until the final ridiculously tight number in 5/4.

It was after 1 am when we finally left the convention centre, the end of a very long but exceptional night of jazz. There were many artists that I would have loved to have seen – Tutu Puoane, Thandiswa Mazwai, Benjamin Jephta, Christian McBride – and I would love to hear more singers in future.

I love the Joy of Jazz festival. And by and large organization is top notch. Traffic, late starts and sound issues do need to be addressed, although it has come a long way since Newtown. Next time I would love to book into a hotel within walking distance and indulge as much as the three nights have to offer, possibly with a hip flask. Time to start saving.

Rebecca Swift. 30 September 2017

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