One of the characteristics of a great work of art is its ability to jerk us, sometimes uncomfortably, out of habituated ways of seeing the world around us. This is usually accomplished by the skilful use of technical ability put at the service of a vision, a new insight, a powerful emotion.
T.S. Eliot did this with one of his earliest poems:
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table.”
This is poetry expressed in language not usually associated with poetry – at least when it was written in the early years of the last century.
I have not, for a long time, been as joyfully shaken out of my complacency as I have been by this wonderful double album by the Kyle Shepherd Trio, Dream State (Sheer Sound, 2014). On my first listening to the album, I just settled down comfortably thinking, “I know where they’re going with this,” only to find them taking the music somewhere entirely else.
If jazz is, in Whitney Balliett’s phrase, “the sound of surprise,” then this album is jazz for sure! Almost every track contains delicious surprises.
Sure, there are tracks on the album which have a satisfying, comfy sort of groove, but that groove doesn’t stay so comfy long, before the listener is hit by a surprising turn of phrase, an unexpected rhythm, an unusual harmony or voicing, which says, in effect, “Hey there, listen!”
As Percy Mabandu writes in the rather sparse liner notes, “This band is on a search for more than beautiful notes. They are asking more of the music.” Though beautiful notes there are a-plenty – and they ask more of the listener too.
Having written about all the surprises though I should not like anyone to get the impression that this is somehow “experimental” music (except in the sense that good jazz, being mostly improvisational, is to a certain extent “experimental”), or a wildly outré performance – there is not a discordant note that is there just for the discord. Every note is right, every note plays a part in the creation of a unified whole, nothing is there just for effect.
While all the tracks are beautiful, a good example of the variety which the trio brings to the music is found in the final track of the set, “Ahimsa (for Gandhi and Mandela)” which starts off in a quiet mood with a repeated left hand figure and some melodic excursions with a feeling of peace (think of Abdullah Ibrahim’s album Peace and you will have a sense of where this might come from). Then the right hand gets excited and there are some wild leaps of notes in the upper register before the music comes back to the original feeling. All the while the left hand figure has continued its pattern, giving the whole track a unity of rhythm and feeling, while the improvisational right hand has added colour and a sense of exploration.
In many of the tracks there are echoes of other music, not as pastiches but more like hinted at tributes to, for example, Tete Mbambisa and, as mentioned, Abdullah. Monk is more directly invoked in the very first track of the set, “City Monk, Desert Monk, Zikr.”
The trio is made up of Kyle Shepherd (leader, piano, composer), Shane Cooper on bass and Jonno Sweetman on drums. Shepherd won the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year award for jazz in 2014. The trio, now in its fifth year as a unit, has toured extensively in Europe, Japan, India, Malaysia and the US, where they played a gig at Carnegie Hall.
A welcome addition to the trio is tenor-player Buddy Wells, who contributes some wonderfully robust yet sensitive
blowing on some of the tracks.
This double-CD album is an essential addition to any collection of South African jazz.