A Hip King

A Hip King

“Now if someone tells you in dreamtime that you better do something, you better do it.”

— Abdullah Ibrahim

I see the grey of his hair first as he walks up. He does the namaste greeting and then sits down, much more frail than the last time, at a beautifully miked Yamaha piano in the upstairs theatre. The old stained glass windows of the church it once was are boarded up, but the light of late summer is crashing against and around them, outlining the vaulted shapes. The concert begins at 4 pm.

His hands are tremulous when not on the keyboard. Often he takes his right hand away entirely and touches the corners of his mouth. But he still hits the piano hard when he needs to. Hands trembling above the keys, then smashing down on them, even though the muscle mass has been winnowed away. I see the hands, the hands through which so much has flowed, reflected in the Yamaha. He starts to play Blues for a Hip King, disembodied fragments of it anyway, and my throat closes a little.

After the performance, he takes in the applause, then shuts one ear with his hand and sings a strange, tuneless song that sounds like a spiritual. At one point he stops and seems to glare at an usher who has perhaps opened the doors too early. People are coming out of the main theatre down below, a new musical called Langarm, its posters all over town reading: ‘He was white. She was not. They broke the law to dance’.

The maestro glares at the usher, one hand at his ear, the other palm lifted as if to say: What the – ? Wie’s die moegoe? Still a difficult man, still a badass. ‘A jazz pianist so excessively bitter, rueful and astringent’, wrote Lewis Nkosi in 1966, ‘that anyone able to endure his music for any length of time must often feel compromised in some obscure reluctant corner of the heart’.

The maestro resumes singing, and I can just make out some lines about crossing over the River Jordan. Then he walks off the stage and out, going down into the bright sunshine.

Dreamtime improvisation

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Into Darkness / Darkness Pass

4.5 hours of solo (only) improvised (mostly) piano.

This is the first part of an extended mix of solo improvised piano that I have put together. It was too large to upload as one file, but parts one (Into Darkness) two (The Fire Within) and three (Darkness Pass) can all be found on Mixcloud with full track listings. Available for download here.

Most of it could be classed as ‘jazz’, but for me the word doesn’t sit right. It is simply solo (only) improvised (mostly) piano, with some exceptions for classical pieces that I really love (and that sound kind of improvised, even though they aren’t). I think Barry Harris was right when he said that 20c improvisers took over where Stravinsky, Schoenberg and the classical avant-garde left off. (That is not to imply an idea of linear progression / development / influence, but rather that different musicians converged on the same harmonic language, and harmonic problems, from different directions.) The first track here, from Nduduzo Makhathini’s momentous 2017 album ‘Reflections’, sounds as much like Webern or Berg as Monk or Ellington. So Bud Powell and Brad Mehldau sound like Bach, and Shostakovich sounds like Bill Evans, who sounds like Debussy, who sounds like Philip Glass.

The whole mix is trying to explore those beautiful regions at the intersections of jazz, extended harmony and modern classical, from the thunderous resonance of McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett to the minimalism and quietude of Arvo Pärt and Nils Frahm. It is also weighted towards Africa South because we are so blessed in solo pianistic experimenters: Abdullah Ibrahim, Bheki Mseleku, Moses Molelekwa, Kyle Shepherd, to name only a few that appear here. This first part takes its name from Shepherd's 2012 album recorded in a small village in Japan (on those tracks you can hear the cicadas and nocturnal insects in the background).

The only exceptions to the insistence on solo (only) piano are 1) the impassioned groans from Jarrett (Live at Royal Festival Hall, London 2008, a concert I was fortunate enough to attend) and singing from Mseleku (Meditation Suite, 1994); but these can be put down to ‘vocal acknowledgement’ and 2) Nils Frahm’s Tristana, which slipped through the net, because I forgot that a melodica (?) enters late into the piece (and the mix was recorded in real time, so I couldn’t delete - anyway it's so beautiful). I have also put in some short recordings of my own playing, as a tribute to these masters, and one in particular, but ideally you won’t notice.

00:00 Nduduzo Makhathini: Ase (Reflections, 2017) | 04:22 Kyle Shepherd: Ebhofolo (Into Darkness, 2012) | 12:09 Keith Jarrett: Part I: Royal Festival Hall, London (Paris / London: Testament, 2008) | 23:16 Nils Frahm: Ode (Solo, 2015) | 27:44 Brad Mehldau: Waltz for J.B. (10 Years Solo Live, 2015) | 33:53 Max Richter: A Woman Alone (Hostiles, 2018) | 35:44 Bheki Mseleku: Meditation Suite (Meditations, 1994) | 1:08:06 Nduduzo Makhathini: Duduzile (Reflections, 2017) | 1:13:00 Anders Widmark: Din nåd står vakt omkring mitt hus BWV 345 Version I (Piano/Hymn, 2004) | 1:16:54 Sergei Prokofiev: Prelude to Cinderella Suite, Transcribed for Two Pianos | 1:19:27 Ravi Shankar: Venezia (Piano: Florian Uhlig, Venezia, 2001) | 1:24:20 Arvo Pärt: Für Alina (Piano: Alexander Malter, Alina, 1999) | 1:35:14 Keith Jarrett: Part IV: Royal Festival Hall, London (Paris / London: Testament, 2008).

27 False Starts

Listening to Moses Taiwa Molelekwa.

Ways of Writing: Creativity, Knowledge and Experimentation in the Academy.Africa, Reading, Humanities | English Department, University of Cape Town. Brenda Cooper, Lesley Green and Hedley Twidle in conversation | 5 August 2014.

The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue as to the nature of all art...the incongruity of that moment, compared to the uncounted, unperceived silence which preceded it.

John Berger