No visit to a foreign country is ever without event or at least some excitement, especially when that country is one never visited by anyone in the band so far. Our journey to South Africa for the Cape Town Jazz Festival last week had all the anticipation and expectation of a football team heading for a big international World Cup match among quality participants, and a chance to shine at what is now one of the world’s premier jazz events. The stellar thing about this one, though, is that it is not totally dominated by US artists – even though jazz music is by birth an American adaptation of an African theme – but rather a gathering of European, American, Egyptian and other African & South African artists who gave a stunning array of sounds, cultures and accents to a jazz-themed assortment of musical wizardry.
From the Jack DeJonettes, the Joe Samples, the Jimmy Cobbs and the Randy Crawfords of the acclaimed US jazz stable, to the likes of northern Europeans Nils Landgren on ‘bone and female trumpet virtuoso Saskia Laroo with her mixing of jazz, hip hop and funk, then of course to the joyous harmonies and voices of the Mother Continent heard from Madala Kunene, a Zulu guitar master, pianist Themba Mkhize and of course Ladysmith Black Mambazo (South Africa’s ‘national treasure’ vocal group) who preceded us on the main stage last Friday, what a blast the whole thing was! Mpho Skeef and Esther Miller – two female jazz singers who are both by now well known in the UK where they live and ply their trade but both born in South Africa - added another element to the rainbow of entertainers on (and off) stage; then back again to the US-bred Tortured Soul, and Leela James, from the New York mixing bowl – Leela’s band featuring Israeli guitar genius Hanan Rubinstein just to keep the international elements stacking up. As they say in Scotland, it was ‘pure-dead-brilliant’, and you could claim we added a touch of THAT proud nationality, too!
I guess the only other jazz festival with such a world content nowadays would be Montreux, the Swiss establishment that Claud Nobs has been growing continuously since the late sixties, and it beggars belief that there is nowhere in the USA – the cradle of Jazz – that has anything to compare in size and diversity. Shouldn’t questions be asked in Congress or something, or does jazz now have all the importance that was bestowed on its birthplace New Orleans in its hour of need and indeed ever since? After all, Jazz is the true voice of America – the goodwill ambassador to the world, if you will, from a country that truly needs all the help it can get in restoring its light of affection around the globe where so many billions of people now rightly or wrongly mistrust its motives thanks to the abysmal forays of its current presidency into the cauldrons of anti-diplomacy, confrontation and global cultural ignorance or non-recognition.
Perhaps it’s time for a New Note, or just a blue note to once again be ‘The Voice’.
Mind you, if some enterprising soul in the mould of a George Wein (founder of the Newport Jazz Festival back in the sixties) were to pioneer such an extravaganza of musical colour, he would probably find that half the invitees from other continents would be inadmissible to continental US shores by today’s haphazard, scattershot and paranoid guidelines in the INS’s “who’s welcome” playbook, since there would be numerous unconventional and cross- cultural entities to deal with whose backgrounds would likely give them the collywobbles - even if they could pronounce half their names; tough when our ‘grand poobah’ can’t even say ‘nuclear’, isn’t it?
Nevertheless, it’s good to be back in the States again (a reminder of a ‘Forever More’ song for those few of you who remember me & McIntyre’s experimental cross-country rubber band of the late 60s which preceded AWB), and we are all looking forward to a less time-consuming travel schedule than that which we’ve just been through. In the upcoming dates around the northeast quadrant throughout April and beginning of May, a four-hour journey will seem like child’s play after our continental drift across the equator and back – time for just one movie per journey, instead of trying to pack half the Netflix catalog in our bags to fuel the hours of tedium involved in execution of that marathon. I think the realization of the absurdity of such a long journey came at about 5am in Senegal, West Africa when the pilot came on after our refueling stop and said that takeoff would have to be delayed until they could get an ox off the runway! Phil, our soundman said the same thing happened last year, so we are convinced they prod this poor animal with a stick onto the runway every night just to get even with the Western World for a few minutes, and remind us where mankind originated even though he couldn’t fly then; except in spirit and soul – two things that escape all but a few of our financially-empowered gurus of today.
It may even be that same ox from the cave paintings of Mali and Namibia, the bastard!
Talking of paintings, I had a very little time to explore the national art of southern Africa being that we were there over a weekend and they do treasure their closed-shop hours from noon on Saturday until Monday morning the way it used to be in Britain in the fifties and early sixties, and no doubt through all of the Commonwealth countries. A healthy eschewal of commercialism over quality of life and leisure. Consequently, I kept bumping into ‘frame-shops’. As an erstwhile painter, I find myself in endless frame-shops and from time to time see incredibly overlooked bits of great art that have been left in these ‘service’ emporia when the artist can’t afford the framing bill and leaves the artwork behind as a deposit till the pickup can be paid for with a sale assured. I am constantly castigated for my inability or, rather, desire to market my paintings, having such an advantage as I do, when extremely talented and dedicated artists find it hard to find any outlet for their life work; Jacques Pepin, the renowned chef/teacher says “cooking can be fun, but it is serious - My métier is cooking and I paint when the mood takes me – I am a much better cook than I am a painter”. I totally understand and agree as a musician, but painting nonetheless provides another avenue of inspiration that inevitably leads to fresher musical ideas than does a one-dimensional lifestyle – even though the cave-paintings were inevitably, or rather visibly, one dimensional, they portrayed an entire visual representation of their life, their needs, their ‘gods’ (most of them animals), and their prowess over the beasts that either outran them or (when caught) fed them. I think it’s fair to say that if they couldn’t catch them, they themselves became the prey – one thing I no longer think we here today have to worry about, unless we walk around in an “Animal Farm” of our own making.
Returning to America means returning to cheese. I’d forgotten how everything you order in the States comes with cheese just about, unless you remember to ask in advance to have it held in abeyance. I have to say – and this is just my theory – that it must have something to do with the trouser width / bum sizes immediately noticeable in the street. The last two evenings I’ve gone to eat dinner and I had totally forgotten this cheese thing until a perfectly good burger, with perfectly fine meat, and perfectly cooked had a slice of USDAiry plastic welded to it without my asking. It couldn’t be removed as it was also soldered to the bun above and after the first bite it then clung to my top palette, thus ruining the joyous experience of the national dish at its best, unsullied and unadorned with cheeseandpickleand lettuceandmayo. I then had to reorder from a by-now huffed waiter and had to wait until my dining compadres were almost done before a replacement arrived, THIS time with half-done fries, obviously of the frozen variety. Then yesterday I had some delightful, fresh seafood on pasta, and again it was a struggle to fight off the cheese-waving waiter who no doubt would have camouflaged the entire dish in a flurry of grated dairy, so that it could hide inconspicuously by a desert roadside in Nevada while Blackhawk helicopters and F-15s flew vainly overhead in their search for the deadly ‘Seafood Special’ that threatens national security. Anyway, the reaction to both my eating experiences was somewhere between being shunned or sent to Guantanamo for treasonous behaviour. And don’t get me started about the breakfast roll; bacon & egg is enough of an artery-stopper WITHOUT THE CHEESE!
Which in turn brings me to another bloody eating season, and all in the name of religion. Yes, it’s Passover / Easter and whatever the other lots find as an excuse for a bout of gorging. Wasn’t it just Hannuka/Christmas/Kwanzaa etc. and we were all waddling about like stuffed animals? We had a few lovely meals in South Africa, and the portions were – well – British size, which is to say they were ample but not daunting. There really is a national conspiracy here in the US to overfill everyone, and it must be the root cause of so much of the illnesses, allergies, and other maladies real or imagined that keep the pharmaceutical companies in a close tie with the petroleum industry for No. 1 necessity in the Western World. I think the ‘all-you-can-eat’ sign should be summarily banned, just as Britain is now doing with ‘Happy-Hour’ (it is the biggest culprit in binge-drinking), and platters really should be cut down in size so the emphasis is on quality rather than quantity. But driving around the Tri-State area, watching people graze and snack wherever they are or whatever they’re doing, I would forward my personal theory that the real religion in the USA is eating, and the common god, to all, is FOOD. Perhaps the Lord’s Prayer should begin, “our father who art in kitchen……”
Right, I’d better stop before I become the target of a US-led coalition of religious gluttons and cheese farmers, and am deported for anti–obesity sedition and causing culinary unrest. I’m looking forward to the upcoming gigs with some new tunes under our (unstretched) belts, a chance to keep our wheels on the ground and, apart from the Florida festival next week, leave out the flying and the airports for a while. I am tired of buying new guitar cases as the TSA seems to have it in for us musicians, and take great pains to punish our instruments and their protective covering at every turn. Meanwhile, upstairs, we are being searched for “meats, fruits and CHEESES” – I kid you not - and the possibility that any of us are carrying $10,000 in cash. I keep no cheese in my shoes, and if I had that kind of money to carry around, I wouldn’t be playing gigs for a living – I’d be in the oil or pharmaceutical business, or be a cheese conglomerate, supplying Wallace & Gromit and an insatiable nation with its fix.
Meanwhile, whet your musical appetites – a feast is a-comin’, and happy whatever you celebrate this week with your favourite cheeses. Watch out for the holes!