Bänz Oester and The Rainmakers ‘Ukuzinikela [Live in Willisau]’ (Enja Yellowbird) 5/5

bänz-oester-the-rainmakersBandleader and double bassist Bänz Oester has been active in the Swiss and international improvised jazz scene since the early eighties. For this highly inventive quartet he brings together tenor saxophonist Ganesh Geymeier, one of the most popular Swiss sax players of the younger generation, with two highly respected South African musicians; pianist Afrika Mkhize and drummer Ayanda Sikade. The band have toured extensively and their 2012 release “Live at The Bird’s Eye”, recorded at the Basel jazz club, was an excellent introduction to the band’s collective talents. Further tours of South Africa and Europe ensued, leading to the release of this live recording made in Willisau, Switzerland. The band have benefited a great deal from touring and performing together over the last few years, their heady mix of joyous, exciting jazz now being wonderfully refined to the point that I would venture to suggest they are potentially now one of the must-see acts on the world circuit.

There are many reasons to wax lyrical about this album, the most obvious being the band’s energy. You can feel the essence of what they’re all about right from the off. The opening track, and for me, undoubtedly the high point of the album, is an incredible rendition of Jacque Brel’s classic folk tune “Amsterdam”. There are many outstanding moments throughout this release, but this track sums up everything that is great about this band. The first few minutes take up Brel’s tuneful intro and listeners familiar with the song will smile at the warmth and clarity with which it is performed. From this point on, the band take the piece into new ground with daring, exciting, energetic gusto, led by the brilliant sax playing of Geymeier. Coltrane-esque in his playing, with splendid back-up from the band at the top of their game, this is one of the best jazz interpretations of a classic tune I have ever heard. It’s worth buying the album for this track alone. But the brilliance doesn’t end there. The album as a whole focusses on a selection of originals and Swiss and Bulgarian folk tunes, all performed in a mouth-watering style that incorporates African polyrhythms, seductive and funky blues patterns, post-bop jazz, mixed with some spellbinding improv from each and every member of the band. At times reminiscent of the Jarrett/Garbarek European quartet of the ’70s, there is a deeply felt connection emanating from the musicians, their intense and dynamic interplay giving the listener a highly immersive and thoroughly enjoyable experience. The tunes performed have some lovely variation to them, with many ‘wow’ moments to be enjoyed along the way. Perhaps at their best when the quartet gets into a groove and run with it, the whole band are on fire, but a constant source of wonder is Afrika Mkhize’s piano playing. Having reviewed his wonderful album “Rain Dancer” late last year, I was already familiar with his prodigious talent, and this recording just further solidifies my belief that he is set to become one of the jazz stars of the decade.

A European tour begins in earnest this Spring with the band taking their evocative, refreshing mix of jazz/folk/blues on tour once again. One to look out for most definitely, the two album releases to date having both been recorded from live performances, both albums being a breath of fresh air. Bänz Oester and The Rainmakers are just that; a breath of fresh air, putting some much-needed joy and excitement back into jazz. If they continue to play together with such stylish abandonment, one can only imagine what they might be capable of.

Mike Gates