Bokani Dyer Trio @ Eastside Jazz Club

Eastside Jazz Club, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – 9 May 2019

This was the first time piano player Bokani had played in Birmingham and judging by the playing and the reaction it won’t be the last. He was with his South African Trio featuring Romy Brauteseth on bass and Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums.

Neo Native is the new CD featuring the band – for Bokani it’s his fourth studio album and probably his best to date. The music is sophisticated top-notch jazz however you view it and whatever genre you apply to it. At its heart is a thread of the rich South African jazz lineage but its reach is far beyond that geographical and cultural positioning.

This is demonstrated by Dyer’s view that the music is about notions of identity “How one chooses to identify and a question of what a person feels connected to as a native. In the human experience beyond geography, where does the feeling of home reside.” Perhaps not surprising for someone born in Botswana to a Botswanan mother and South African father but equally applicable to notions of geography and jazz.

The band kicked off with ‘Dollar Adagio’ with Romy Brauteseth’s bass immediately prominent and its striking piano theme. Dedicated to Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) like the rest of the music it’s no pastiche showing how Dyer has developed his own unique sound which draws on the South African heritage with his own take on modern and contemporary jazz.

Also immediately obvious is the absolute pleasure and relish the band take in each other’s playing. I’m not sure I have seen so much smiling and such positive interaction very often before. Dyer is rhythmic and melodic, Brauteseth provides a strong pulse and Mazibuko is flexible with a real feel and attack.

Most of the tracks were from ‘Neo Native’ with a couple from the previous CD including ‘Vuvuzela’, which unsurprisingly perhaps given the title is the name of those sound instruments that were so prominent in the football World Cup in 2010, has a more distinctively South African feel.

Dyer is keen to experiment and on one track laid paper over the strings of the grand piano to produce a fuzzy sharp edged sound reminiscent of the original version of Mannenberg, Abdullah Ibrahim’s famous tune, which was recorded on an upright piano with tacks in the hammers.

An utterly absorbing and engaging concert which was the main feature of a South African day which started with the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Jazz Orchestra playing Julian Arguelles’ ‘Let it Be Told’ arrangements of South African music went on to an intriguing selection of modern classical music played by mainly South African musicians at the Conservatoire and mostly by South African composers. We also heard about the positive work being done by distance learning and by visits by the Classical Department at the conservatoire with young people in Soweto.

The evening concluded with a crackling set of early Blue Notes and Brotherhood of Breath tracks from the new Conservatoire Township Band. Ably led from the bass by Riaan Vosloo, depping for a student who had had a “jazz accident”, they really had that earthy, raw sound down.

The South African jazz exiles who came to the UK in the 60s had a profound and lasting impact on British jazz and it is good to see that the relationship continues with new generations and that it is now more of a two way street.

Brian Homer