Neil Gonsalves: The Interview
Photo: Courtesy of Doug Mostert
Jazz in South Africa has so many different stories to tell; here’s just one of them. Pianist, composer, bandleader and educator, Neil Gonsalves has a new album out, “Blessings and Blues”. On the eve of its release, we discussed his background, previous releases and yes, Covid-19 came up once or twice. Here’s an edited version of our discussion.
Q. I’ve read a little about your time studying at the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal), but can you tell us a little about your musical story before higher education?
Neil Gonsalves: It starts with organ lessons around the time I was 10 years old. I took lessons along with my brother. He had this habit of getting up in the morning and rocking back and forth on his haunches. My parents thought it might indicate some musical inclination and because we had an organ at home they sent us off for lessons. A few years later he lost interest and I just kept going with it.
At some point, I got roped into playing in church in the folk band. As I got better with the organ I started getting entered into competitions and my teacher introduced me to some really interesting repertoire that was going beyond the pop stuff. I learnt Sunny and Invitation, some of the first standards, although I didn’t know they were Jazz standards. I was learning this in a bubble because I didn’t know anything about Jazz.
My Dad was an educator and he would go to the city library and get books and recordings out of the library at the US Consulate in Durban. Before I got to varsity I had read Bird Lives and I’d listened to Coltrane on vinyl. Just the whole romantic side of that, that hipster aesthetic of Bird, and even though most of the language in the book went over my head there was an appeal of the music and the characters that drew me in.
Q. You studied under Darius Brubeck at the University of Natal. Could you tell us something about his influence on your musical persona? Am I right in thinking that he first steered you toward the piano?
Neil Gonsalves: When I got into the Jazz program I had never played the piano before, I’d never played in a band and I’d never played Jazz, so that first year was quite a steep learning curve. I think it was quite traumatic, both for myself and Darius, let alone people I was playing with. I always had Darius in my ear saying “well Neil, you might need an extra year.” I can understand that completely now but at the time, I think, I saw him as this figure that I had to prove myself to.
My main inspiration on piano at the time was Melvin Peters, my predecessor in the program. He had fast hands and I loved how he used to build his solos in gigs. I got a lot of solid jazz piano information from Darius, things I still teach my students, but he would impress me more as a composer. He put on a concert with his band, Gathering Forces, a multicultural large ensemble that blew me away. Over the years, I’ve realized how consistent he is in writing great music.
The Saxophone teacher was Chris Merz. I think Chris had just finished his Master’s degree. He was an amazing saxophone player, composer, arranger and maybe because he was younger I found him to be my musical mentor and hero. Chris was very encouraging, encouraging us to compose, to play our own music, to have our own bands and so he was the guy that I aspired to. Darius felt more like a musical father, Chris more like a musical older brother.
Q. I see that you had a group with Feya Faku and Lex Futshane during your student days. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Neil Gonsalves: When I got into the Jazz program, Feya and Lex were a year, maybe two, ahead of me. These guys were musicians, along with many other students like Johnny Mekoa, Zim Ngqawana and Lulu Gontsana. They were musicians who were coming into the program and basically wanted a piece of paper. I remember Lex expressing the frustration on more than one occasion that they were paying a lot of money to teach themselves. The informal jazz education that the guys had picked up in the townships pre-varsity stood them in very good stead in the jazz practical classes especially. It also made the jazz program seem like a spectacular success.
That pre-education was an essential ingredient though as was the Brubeck name which added prestige and leverage that would benefit us all subsequently, even if we didn’t realise it at the time. Comparatively though, for a jazz novice like me, I feel like I benefitted doubly given how much I learned from my peers, as well as what the formal program offered. I feel like I studied at an ideal time when there was a great balance between a not overly-structured program and enough time and space for self and peer-learning within a strong jazz culture on campus and in the city. I think the experience may have been different for others though.
Feya and Lex and the rest of the guys figured out that the band was only ever going to be as good as its weakest link and that was me. They took me under their wing and would spend hours, literally, in the practice room going through whatever tunes we were learning, pointing me towards recording references and trying to demonstrate comping stuff and whatever it was they could help me with.
That kind of mentor/mentee relationship has continued. Even now I see them as my musical big brothers. At some point, I got good enough that I was more than the piano player they had to tolerate. I was learning some of their tunes and they probably liked my spirit and willingness to learn.
At some point, I got called to play in the band. We would play mainly Feya’s tunes. By that time I was starting to write and so even one or two of my tunes were starting to creep into the repertoire. I loved Feya’s tunes. I loved playing them, I always thought that I played much better on his tunes than I did on my own. There was a certain kind of simplicity, a beauty of melody and the whole vibe in his music that appealed to me and that I still think that I aspire to now.
Both of those guys are Xhosa and so a lot of the rhythmic stuff in that music was also foreign (to me). A couple of tunes of Lex’s especially used to trip me up. I would hear them the wrong way round, I’d be on the wrong side of the beat. I remember Lex saying things to me like, I was playing too much swing. That was quite an interesting thing to say because now I understand what he means. I feel like swing is a perspective, but playing their music opened me up to different kinds of grooves, different kinds of modalities.
Photo: Courtesy of Doug Mostert
Q. Did you go into teaching after completing your Masters?
Neil Gonsalves: I started teaching before I completed my Master’s degree. I think it took me ages to complete. When I was a graduate assistant Darius employed me to help him out with some of his piano teaching because he had so many students. It turned out that I was quite a good teacher because I enjoyed it and my students enjoyed me and they produced good results. I think to some degree it was a consequence of the challenges I had faced as a student.
In hindsight sometimes I think that I overteach things. So much of what I teach are things that I have figured out for myself, or on the bandstand, or learnt in a traditional, informal way. I’m not a big proponent of learning music out of books, I think there is a balance to be found between an informal experience and a solid formal education.
Q. Around this time you were playing locally with Tonk. First of all, where did the name come from? Where did you meet your fellow band members?
Neil Gonsalves: Tonk took formation in and around 1998. It gets its name from Logan Byrne, our bass player. We’d been rehearsing for a while and we were looking for a name. Logan came up with this suggestion, I guess an abbreviation for Honky Tonk, a place where people congregate, to make lots of noise and have a good time. Music is central to all of that so we thought it was a good fit for what we were trying to do.
I think South Africa at the time was also very reflective of that spirit, with ‘94 and the elections and all of that. There was a lot of positivity and hope for the future. I think we were discovering each other as people; that had been going on for many years before that, but for me, it was a great time to be a musician, because I was so busy playing with so many different bands and fantastic musicians. I was playing with Busi Mhlongo and Brice Wassy, the Cameroonian drummer. Busi was touring her Urban Zulu album and Brice had brought me into the fold, playing Maskandi music, which was again tripping me up in the same way that Lex Futshane’s compositions had.
Bheki Mseleku had also come to take up a kind of Artist in Residence position at Technikon Natal (now part of the Durban University of Technology) and he formed a band. I was holding down the piano chair because he wanted to play the saxophone. Talk about being in the right place at the right time in terms of studying with a master of the music. Learning Bheki’s tunes, all of these cycles and chord voicings that I just never came across before really opened me up and I spent years after that trying to consolidate all of that information.
Through all of that time, I was still composing and working on my own thing. I was looking for some vehicle to give expression to that but I knew that I needed regular rehearsals, because I had ambitions to get the stuff recorded and workshopped and arranged and that needed time and some level of commitment and dedication.
I had a conspirator in Mageshen Naidoo. We had studied together, (he) was a year or two behind me. We played in a band, an indo-fusion band called Mosaic previously. We shared a lot of similar music influences, we both loved Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays for example, but we needed a rhythm section. We couldn’t find what we were looking for within our Jazz circles so we started looking further afield. I had a student at Technikon whose husband was Bruce Baker. Bruce was playing in Nibs van der Spuy’s band, Landscape Prayers, which was a Folk-Rock outfit. He also played in a band called Squeal, which is much more of a rock thing, led by Dave Birch. Both of those bands were making waves in Durban at the time, excuse the pun, but Bruce had gained his reputation as a virtuoso drummer. Then I heard from Bruce’s wife that he had aspirations towards Jazz and discovered subsequently that Bruce was a serious student of music. He’d been checking out Jazz and Jazz drumming in a very studious way. He came into the fold and brought with him his bass player in Landscape Prayers, Logan Byrne, who was also very keen to check out some new stuff.
What those guys brought was a serious commitment and intent, ambition and a work ethic that we needed. We rehearsed once or twice a week for years, to the point where we could put on three of four sets of original material and even bring in other players so that we could perform as a large ensemble when we had the budget. It was a great time. At some point, we knew that we wanted to record and we were saving money from our gigs. Around that time was also when Mageshen let us know that he had been successful with an application to take up Doctoral study at USC in the States, which meant that the band was coming to a close. So we went into the studio and recorded the Tonk album.
Q. What was the story behind your album, North Facing? What were you doing in Sweden at the time?
Neil Gonsalves: The North Facing record came about as a consequence of an exchange program that the University of Natal enjoyed with the University of Gothenburg. That exchange lasted, I think, about 10 years or so and even though I wasn’t part of the University of Natal I had quite a lot of interaction with the young musicians that were coming across from Gothenburg.
I enquired with Johannes (Nordgaard) about recording in Gothenburg and it turned out that it wasn’t going to be much more expensive than it would have been to do in South Africa. I wasn’t eligible for the exchange because I wasn’t part of the University of Natal, but that fell into place because there was a merging of institutions.
I found myself in Gothenburg for about 5 weeks. I’d composed all of the music, I think, before I got there, but I didn’t have any arrangements. So the first two weeks or so of that exchange I remember walking across from our accommodation to go to the practice rooms and sit at the piano and work up these arrangements.
Johannes (on bass) has the most wonderful chemistry with the drummer, Fredrik (Hamra). These guys played together so beautifully and I found myself again at the right time in the right place to enjoy the benefit of that. Those guys are the most amazing musicians, they have their own sound and their own culture. That hymnal tradition is something I could connect with, their folk music traditions I loved and that whole Scandinavian vibe was something that I loved anyway and was familiar with to some degree.
North Facing was really about me representing myself, my people, my culture, the community that I came from and I think it all takes on a different feeling when you are doing that in a different place. Also, I guess that there’s the added dimension of working with musicians who have a lot in common with you as a Jazz musician, but they also have their own thing, and as a composer and a Jazz musician I’m trying to exploit those strengths, but at the same time I’m also trying to represent a different place. I think it all comes together quite beautifully on that record.
Photo: Courtesy of Doug Mostert
Q. For me, it feels like last year’s album, “Concert for One”, was rooted in an inner monologue, the sharing of a personal moment. Was the outcome cathartic in any way?
Neil Gonsalves: When Covid became a real thing and we went into lockdown it was, I think, like for most people, it was quite a shock to the system. Personally I also suddenly found an opportunity, time on my hands which was something I hadn’t had for the longest time. Suddenly it felt like now you can get on with all of the things that you had always wanted to do. The idea of recording a solo piano album was one of those; being under lockdown doing something by yourself was pretty much the only thing you could do.
I’d been talking to my friend and colleague Nishlyn Ramanna who’s a fantastic pianist and composer himself. At the time he was at Rhodes University and I was enquiring about their Doctorate program in composition. I had this idea of improvising (a composition) for 40 or 50 minutes and then I would compose another part that I would lay on top of the thing that I had improvised, which would then result in a third thing, which was the two things laid upon each other. I think that the requirement for that Rhodes composition portfolio was three pieces of 50 minutes each and so instead of three pieces that were separate from each other, my idea was that they had a vertical relationship.
It was with this idea that I embarked upon an improvisation. I started it after midnight (but) it wasn’t going very well. I was about to pack it up and then found a flow; I guess that’s the thing you are always looking for, that’s what makes someone like Keith Jarrett so amazing. At around 2 in the morning, I finally started playing and not letting my head get too much in the way. When I listened back to it I thought that’s not bad. I packed it up and checked it out again the next morning and thought that it hangs together nicely enough. I found a groove because the rest all came immediately.
My take on the pandemic was that it was very much a pause for us to engage or disengage with our environment. This idea of an elemental kind of structure was how I named the tunes and thought of each movement. There are 4 of them, the 4 elements – water, fire, earth and air. I got a friend of mine to master it and released it digitally. I was able to put out the record in almost a week, maybe just over, from the time I’d conceived it. I had always wanted to do something quickly, but something that had some sense of flow. I found over the course of last year that I ended up listening to that record quite a lot. I think I was trying to figure out my process and also because it was a completely improvised album it wasn’t like I was familiar with what it was that I was playing.
I’d often listen to it in the morning whilst I was washing the dishes and I found that it became almost meditational. It calmed me down because there was lots of concern and stress about what was going on outside the boundaries of our own home. We were getting all kinds of stories in the news. I realised that this music that I’d created was something that I’d created for myself.
Q. On your latest album, “Blessing and Blues” you are playing with Ildo Nandja on bass and Riley Giandhari on drums. How did you get together and how long have you been playing as a trio?
Photo: Courtesy of Doug Mostert
Neil Gonsalves: I’ve known Ildo and Riley for quite a while because they were both students of mine. They are the most amazing musicians, super talented guys who play great and also are wonderful composers and I love that they bring that kind of sensibility to the trio.
I always try to maintain some kind of trio setup though people go in and out. Durban is a university town and so musicians come to study and then, as opportunities come up wherever then off they go. It’s an occupational hazard for me.
We played as a trio in 2016, had weekly rehearsals and did a few gigs. I always thought that we had a special chemistry, but then Ildo had the opportunity to study and do his Masters in the Netherlands. He mentioned that he was coming down towards the end of 2019 for his brother’s wedding in Maputo. I saw the gap and tried to make something happen.
I think, like me, the guys are also happy to play it fast and loose. At heart, they are improvisers so a lot of the repertoire was new for them, but the music is designed to be learnt quickly and played loosely and I think it is a good fit for us as a trio. I don’t like to overwork things and I’m happy to see what comes up in the moment. I’m happy for mistakes to present opportunities for all kinds of unexpected turns and twists to manifest and I’ve got the benefit of bandmates who are happy to go down those roads and sometimes create those opportunities themselves.
Q. The whole album feels quite autobiographical. As a lot of it was written in 2019, presumably it is not so much of a response to COVID-19, but as a listener now, my initial impressions are of its life-affirming nature, of the joy to be had from different experiences and sensations out there in the world. Can you explain the inspirations and main theme(s) behind the album?
Neil Gonsalves: “Blessings and Blues” was composed and recorded before COVID, so it doesn’t speak directly to COVID. The album itself probably wouldn’t have been titled Blessings and Blues if it wasn’t for COVID (though). I had the blessing of turning 50 in 2019 and then the COVID blues in 2020.
Photo: Courtesy of Doug Mostert
I think most of what I do is autobiographical, composing and playing music is a way that I make sense of the world. So it’s always coming from my understanding and putting things together and seeing parallels and connections between things that I observe. It’s sometimes difficult for me to say what my things are about because they are so much out of my imagination. I think I’m a romantic at heart so I tend to see the world through rose-tinted glasses. There’s a certain element of fantasy, positivity, and some sense of joy in my music because I’ve had such an amazing life. The things that I strive for are greater connection with my community, and this place that I come from, the place that I call home, and, and I think it’s something that I try to grow and manifest in my music as well.
I think that you probably see increasing earthiness. I won’t say groundedness, there’s that connection to the earth, but also, there’s this whimsical, airy, playful, kind of upbeat stuff, that lies on top of that.
The first five or six tunes on the album have a certain connection because they share a compositional aesthetic. They’re all quite short forms, they have a feeling of getting to the point, (an) economy of means, which is why I think of them more as blues tunes.
I think that they are relatively easy to play and I think that has to do with the idea that everything is so fast these days. It is difficult to find rehearsal time and so you want to be able to create music quickly, learn it quickly, have fun with it, play it, record it and get it out there. That seems to be the way of the world.
At the same time, if I can imbue all of that with the sounds and experiences that are just so resonant around me then I think it’s all the better for that. I live in the most vibrant place where there’s always stuff going on. I teach at the university where young people are dealing with all kinds of challenges, economic and social, systems that are antiquated and that don’t work anymore. These problems are not just local, you see them manifest globally. The whole decolonial conversation is something that is an international phenomenon.
The Musician’s Wedding was inspired by attending my friend Bongani Sokhela’s wedding, which was a very vibrant, loud affair. I mean, it’s kind of crazy now with COVID, you miss that stuff so much. The thing I remember clearly from that wedding was the speeches on behalf of the bride and groom. The bride’s spokeswoman was cautioning Bongani about the fact that his music could not be put first, that his wife was the most important thing in his life, and that he’d have to lay his bass down. His spokesman was reminding people that Bongani is an important musician in South Africa and that he is, through his music, what he brings to his community, and that he should not lay down his bass. Regardless, we had a big jam session after the speeches, and it reminded me of quite a few musicians weddings that I’ve attended. At some point in the evening, you’re going to see the bride sitting by her lonesome and her new groom has gone off and is doing the thing that he loves the most. It’s an interesting dynamic to see being played out, wedding after wedding.
The Breadmaker’s Blues is inspired by a trip to the UK to come see Roger Federer play tennis. We came up for the ATP tour finals; my brother lives in London and we stayed with him. After the tennis, we headed off into the countryside for a road trip. One of my brother’s hobbies is baking, and he was introducing us to the science of bread making. I had no idea that there was so much chemistry involved. That kind of plays itself out in the tune. That kind of chemical interaction and reaction reminds me in a very loose way of playing with Ildo and Riley. That’s what I loved about the artwork that my niece Jineya created for the album, (it) has a kind of combustible chemical reaction kind of look about it.
Photo: Courtesy of Doug Mostert
A piece like Let’s Do it Again is around the concept of reincarnation and I have written lyrics to that tune as well. I know I said that the tunes were not composed before COVID but there was a fair amount of post-production work so in a way the album does overlap. I chose to add keyboard sounds because they added a certain kind of moodiness. Perhaps it was something that was a shadow, a COVID shadow that I was feeling.
“Blessings and Blues” is out on 6 April. This and his previous releases are available on Bandcamp here and other digital platforms.
Youtube content, including the online launch, is available here