David Alston: “Music”, the late great drummer Art Blakey often used to tell his audiences, “is supposed to wash away the dust of everyday life from your feet.”With an excess of dust in the air of our beloved country right now, impresario Tony Yoko’s ‘Winter Jazz & Blues Weekend’ at The Theatre on the Square (TOTS) in July proved to be the perfect antidote.
The Boulevard Jazz Ensemble from Pretoria, featuring Nelmarie Naude, vocals and arrangements, Justin Holcroft on saxophones, Nel’s husband Christiaan Rabie on guitar, Marcel Dednam on piano, Werner Spies on bass and Peter Auret on drums, kicked off proceedings on the Friday night with a well-chosen mix of jazz and Latin-American standards with a little bit of bop thrown in for good measure.
Nel’s first outing to TOTS was two years ago, and her voice and stage presence have all matured since then as well as her considerable talents as an arranger. Justin’s playing, whether on alto, tenor or soprano sax, enhances any group, and his ability to sound comfortable in all genres bears testament to his versatility. Marcel comped inventively and soloed imaginatively, Christiaan kept the rhythm section swinging, Werner (on loan from The Charl Du Plessis Trio) proved to be a tower of strength on bass with a strong beat and fleet-fingered solos and Peter, a true musician’s drummer, was always emphatic with the front line, while keeping things cooking in the kitchen department.
So what of the music? Nel opened with Fats Waller and Andy Razaf’s evergreen ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ — with a bow to Anita O’Day’s voice and bass introduction from one of several great albums she cut for the Verve label in the mid-fifties – followed by a heartfelt ‘The Boy Next Door’, made famous by Judy Garland in the 1944 film ‘Meet me in St Louis’. A swinging blues was up next with some groovy singing and scatting by Nel and suitably raunchy solos by the rest of the Group, after which Nel tackled Charlie Parker’s ‘Yardbird Suite’ with lyrics that seem to vary but are all in praise of his legendary status. I particularly liked her wordless voicing with Justin’s alto which was reminiscent of some of Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth’s incomparable outings, and also of a more recent recording by Kansas City vocalist Karrin Allyson.
Highlights of the second half were Hoagy Carmichael’s beautiful ‘Syklark’ with Johnny Mercer’s lyric given a thoughtful reading by Nel, and an upbeat version of Paul Simon’s ‘Fifty Ways to leave your lover’, one of his great songs released in 1975. Following a few lesser-known (to me) Brazilian songs, Nel concluded with what has now become an iconic jazz standard: ‘Twisted’ which brought Annie Ross (of vocal group Lamberts, Hendricks and Ross fame) into the limelight after she put lyrics to composer and saxophonist Wardell Grey’s melody and solo in the nineteen fifties – taken at a fast pace with great solos by all. Jay Hawkin’s ‘I’ll put a spell on you’ was an unusual choice for an encore but proved that Nel is also at home in a more contemporary groove.
In complete contrast, but equally enjoyable, Saturday night produced The Redhand Blues Band, who’ve been on the scene for quite a while with their mix of blues, jazz and good old-fashioned rock and roll. But from the moment lead bassist and vocalist Martin Meerholz launched into their first song, it was clear that blues is their first love, and their obvious knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, this genre captivated the audience, some of whom had probably never heard of Big Joe Williams, Robert Johnson, Albert King and the other great blues singers of yesteryear.