Robbie Jansen: Nomad | Jez (2005)
A new album by saxophonist Robbie Jansen is unquestionably cause to celebrate. His two previous releases as a leader, Vastrap Island and Cape Doctor, were both essential additions to the South African jazz record canon. And while the title of Nomad | Jez might suggest a diverse range of music, Jansen actually stays near to home by focusing on one style in particular: the ghoema, a Cape Town style that to American ears sounds similar to the samba. Jansen is joined by some of the Cape's finest musicians, including the venerable pianist Hilton Schilder.
While most of the album draws on the ghoema, at no point does it feel repetitive, nor does it feel like the musicians have locked into an overly comfortable groove. Jansen's saxophone, always melodically interesting and thoughtful, is also one of the most raw and powerful voices in South Africa, capable of everything from urgent, frantic flights and screaming high notes to deeply felt slow lines. On every song, Jansen gives it his all.
Additionally, with a rhythm section of Ivan Bell on drums and Warrick Sony on percussion, and various bassists ranging from Michael Philips to Basil Moses, the music is constantly bursting with new energyeven on ballads like "Grassy Park Requiem," the energy doesn't let up. While Jansen is unquestionably the album's star, guitarists Allou April, Errol Dyers, and Nazim Brown and pianist Hilton Schilder snag the spotlight on several tracks with some remarkable solos. Allou April in particular may never have sounded this good.
However, the final tracks mark a change in tone. "Song for Carmine is a slow, reverential ballad, featuring Jansen and the band in a more thoughtful, paced mood. Next, Jansen changes the mood entirely by singing, backed only by Allou April's guitar, on "Redemption Song. At his age, there is always the distinct danger of sounding a bit like Hugh Masekelagravelly and somewhat flat and toneless. Fortunately Jansen's voice is a bit throaty and rough, yet powerful, complex, and highly emotive. His song of redemption, set against such minimal instrumentation, is an incredibly powerful experience.
Closing the album are two covers, one long and one short, of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." Given that the number of horrific jazz covers of Marvin Gaye's music could fill several used record bins, one is always a bit wary when spinning these tracks. However, Jansen's powerhouse voice takes the song up into the preacher's pulpit with gospel-influenced note bending and growling. The band takes a break from ghoema and moves into a gutsy R&B groove. The shortened version closing the album seems unnecessary, but perhaps it works better as a radio single.
It's rare to find an album nowadays that is this uniformly brilliant. Jansen truly is one of South Africa's greatest musiciansa legend who continues to record and perform powerful new music, refusing to rest on his laurels.
Note: this recording is available from One World on the web.
Track Listing: Elsies Toe; Welcome Home; Grassy Park Requiem; Cape Joy; Sommer Ghoema; Song for Carmine; Redemption Song; What's Going On; What's Going On (shortened version).
Personnel: Robbie Jansen: alto saxophone, vocals, flute; Hilton Schilder: piano and keyboards; Allou April: guitar, vocals; Ivan Bell: Drums and percussion; Spencer Mbadu: bass guitar; Steven Erasmus: bass guitar; Basil Moses: double bass; Michael Philips: bass guitar; Murray Anderson: additional programming; Alex van Heerden: trumpet; Willie Haubricht: trombone; Buddy Wells: tenor saxophone; Errol Dyers: acoustic guitar; Nazim Brown: electric guitar; Warrick Sony: tambourine; Rene Jansen: backing vocals.