Blue Note Tribute Orkestra: Ancestors breathe

Trumpeter Marcus Wyatt has been bringing the magic of The Blue Notes to a new audience since 2011.

Two musicians can play the same note on the same saxophone and yet, and yet there will be an indefineable difference. Something to do with the way the note vibrates. Something to do with the breath, with the landscape absorbed by the player, manifest in an aural abstraction.

Sisonke Xonti has it. That quality that cannot be defined, cannot be notated, only felt.

From Hugh Masekela’s trumpet it is the deep, broad plains of the north, of the continent; of dust and sweat and occasional, welcome rain.

From Xonti’s tenor sax it is desolation. An alone-ness filled with longing, yet somehow self sufficient in its loneliness. Even in the midst of a raucous hip swinging celebration it is there, a bitter sweet melancholia. It emanates from the barren thorny waste between Port Elizabeth and Despatch, the blue afternoon light that hangs over the foothills of the Winterhoek mountains on the road to Fort Beaufort, the vast beaches battered by antarctic storms and populated only by skinny Nguni cows. It is the same magnificence of emptiness breathed from the trumpet of Mongezi Feza, the saxophones of Dudu Pukwana and Nikele Moyake.

It can be heard in Zim Ngqawana’s horns. It is the beauty of the Eastern Cape and within minutes of the Blue Note Tribute Orkestra playing their set, Xonti’s cry constricted my chest. All I could do was let it roll through me: the pain, desperation, heartbreak and possible redemption of living in this land.

All those other horn men are dead now, but the landscape that bore them won’t let go. It has borne new sons and daughters who have no choice but to breathe it, whether through Mthunzi Mvubu’s alto, Kyle du Preez’s trombone, Marcus Wyatt’s trumpet or Janus van der Merwe’s baritone.

It is also in the beat laid down by Romy Brauteseth’s bass, Ayanda Sikade’s drums and Andile Yenana’s piano, all of whom have the red dust of Makhanda’s land on their shoes.

Of the six orginal Blue Notes, only one – drummer Louis Moholo – was not from the Eastern Cape. He is also the only surviving member. While in exile (they left in the ‘60s) their free jazz exploration of traditional songs, kwela and Xhosa blues electrified European musos and there are still record shop owners in narrow Parisian alleyways who know that a vinyl with Chris McGregor or Johnny Dyani listed on it is worth a premium price, even if they don’t quite get the music.

The recordings are scattered though, the original Blue Notes members mixing and matching with other players, scratching to survive in foreign lands.

Ace trumpeter Marcus Wyatt has been bringing them alive again since 2011, played by the Blue Note Tribute Orkestra. And Sunday night at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival was a homecoming party. Barring one sentimetal track in which vocalist Titi Luzipo sang in a jarring American accent more suited to R&B delivery, the ancestors could be felt ghosting through the horns and shifting through the rhythms they had played so many times, so many years before.

The Blue Note Tribute Orkestra line up was Marcus Wyatt on trumpte, Mthunzi Mvubu on alto sax, Sisonke Xonti on tenor sax, Janus van der Merwe on baritone sax, Titi Luzipo on vocals, Kyle du Preez on trombone, Andile Yenana on piano, Romy Brauteseth on bass, and Ayanda Sikade on drums.

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