The South African Project

Camelot Lounge, May 15 

Youth Jazz Festival 2013
Mark Ginsburg

When an impulsive teenager called jazz slipped from its New Orleans home nearly a century ago it not only headed north, it raced across the world. Initially it was merely mimicked elsewhere, but soon non-Americans such as Belgium’s Django Reinhardt cultivated their own approach. Over the ensuing decades distinctive jazz flourished in countries as diverse as Cuba, Turkey, Norway and Brazil.

In apartheid-riven South Africa jazz readily wedded traditional music to create one of the most vibrant sounds on earth. Like much else there this had a political dimension, it being unlawful for musicians of differing ethnicities to perform together. A 1960s exodus resulted, galvanising London’s jazz scene with the chant-like melodies, gospel-tinged harmonies and loping rhythms that were beds for singing and blazing saxophone, trumpet and piano solos.

This is the vibrant musical world evoked by Mark Ginsburg’s South African Project. Ginsburg (saxophones), Judy Campbell (voice) and Ryan Grogan (piano) are Sydney-based South Africans, while trumpeter Simon Ferenci, bassist Brendan Clark Junior and drummer David Goodman are locals now latching on.

On Abdullah Ibrahim’s Whoza Mtwana Grogan showed how steeped he is in the soulful harmonies and supple grooves (despite the piano being less than cooperative). Clark swapped from double bass to electric for the sprightly Fikele’s Delight, and Campbell let a gentle charm flow through Malaika. Ginsburg’s big, coarse-grained tenor sound stormed across several pieces including Nomali, where the rhythm section showed that even if their take on this music is not quite – to use a wretched term – authentic, they could catch the requisite vitality. Ferenci’s harmonic adventurousness, meanwhile, provided pleasing contrast on A Little Rock in Spain.

The project remains a work in progress as the band finds its own path into – and perhaps even expands on – the idiom, without letting it just become generic jazz. But it’s well worth pursuing, and perhaps the repertoire may also come to represent those brilliant players who fled to London in the ’60s.