By Ben Verghese
Kyle Shepherd Trio
The Reeler Theatre, Rondebosch
Cape Town, South Africa
Sat at a grand piano, Kyle Shepherd triggered the opening notes from his laptop. A pre-produced intro reverberated through the small hall. Strings rose and fell, a voice – Khoisan it seemed – sung/chanted. A beat dropped in the way a pebble hits water, sending out a brief ripple of sub-bass. Then another voice/force – familiar but not quite recognisable – in English it sung: “…jump for joy…” There came coos like a bird, drones, and the metallic tones of a mouth bow. And again, that haunting, clouded vocal: “…jump for joy…”
Percussive hits were then overdubbed live by Shepherd, his right hand working the piano’s upper register, and the aforementioned loop faded out. Some of the audience looked intrigued as the notes sounded distorted, somehow scratchy. What was the source of the disorientating sounds? When Shepherd reached into the piano and pulled out sheets of A4 paper tucked inside, it became clear.
From there/then, the trio took over. Techniques-honed, Shane Cooper’s fingers intricately worked his upright bass, Jonno Sweetman with his drum kit, Shepherd at the instrument he is most known for.
This unit, each member born in the 1980s, now have eight years of time together, of experience(s) to draw upon. The closeness can be heard. United on stage, they express a joyful ease that can come through dedicated practise, through tuning in, through listening to each other’s sounds/ways and finding a collective unity.
Observing Shepherd’s slim frame curl and sway, over and away, to and from the keys, his head jarring back and forth, side to side, words of Fred Moten come to mind: “It was always the whole body that emitted sound: instrument and fingers, bend.”
In this set, time also bent, with the sounds flowing for over an hour and a half – compositions getting stretched and improvised upon. In mood and structure, the material continued the feel of the trio’s superb double album Dream State (2014) and their debut recording A Portrait of Home (2010). However, reading through a set list the songs selected were/are almost all newly written compositions and, I’ve also subsequently learnt, most (if not all) have been penned with Cooper and Sweetman in mind.
By writing songs to suit his accomplices’ particular musical personalities and styles, Shepherd is encouraging the musicians alongside him to express themselves with force and freedom. The trio’s coherence is evident. It is uplifting. As a group they possess a thick, full sound along with an openness in their nimble interplay and improvisations. They emit and evoke feelings. Furthermore, together they embody a brilliance specific to piano trios, whereby each of them can percussively charge in the same (or polyrhythmic) directions.
Sweetman reiterated how he can serve super crisp boom-baps for Cooper or Shepherd to roam in, on, or around, as well as offering his delicate free playing, such as when his fingertips patter the snare drum or with his use of brushes.
Late in the set, came the anthemic “Dream State”. Here, layers and layers of looping melodies from each musician build and build to eyes of the song. Then comes a handful of bars which are calm and consolidating, before the (re)build commences again and the structure repeats. Over halfway through, the tempo quickening to peak then slows again in a reflective finale. As on the album’s studio recorded version – where Shepherd’s own commitment to the track erupts in a slight fleeting vocal – during this live interpretation, the song caused him to soar from his stool, standing with hands continuing to play the chords fervently. Carried with the song’s intensity, a scattering of the 100 or so people sat in attendance were also pulled to their feet. We cheered!
Although the venue’s name suggests an auditorium, in truth, the Reeler is a small hall. A small hall on the campus of Rondebosch Boys High School, a former ‘Whites Only’ institution, with annual fees for 2017 of R45,000. While the venue seems out of tune with Shepherd’s cultural and political consciousness – which his discography and numerous interviews demonstrate – the room and sound setup is acoustically more pleasing to the ear than other live music venues across Cape Town (of which there is a shortage).
This gig, overenthusiastically billed as a “Rare Cape Town show” was organised with the support of many of Shepherd’s extended network of Cape Town family and friends. The occasion felt intimate and loving.
Overseas, the Kyle Shepherd Trio may not (yet) be known as widely as a trio of also innovative and excellent 21st Century piano, bass and drum ensembles, including those of Vijay Iyer, Avishai Cohen, or (the late) Esbjorn Svensson. But why so? Is there lingering prejudice and other ignorance towards music from Africa? Neo-colonial underinvest/development? The hope remains this will soon (continue to) change.
Days after the concert, with the haunting cry of “Jump for joy” still ringing in my head, I perused Kyle Shepherd’s Instagram feed. Among his self-documenting is a short video captioned: “Creating music for a dream sequence using samples of a khoisan singer in the kalahari desert and Abdullah Ibrahim singing an African American slave song”.
With the query on who the voice/force from the intro now revealed, it would be easy to go on about the impressions one great Capetonian pianist has made on another. However, Shepherd’s own voice is moving beyond ways (tradition/s, we could say) that Ibrahim is recognised for. The digital glimpse into Shepherd’s studio, via stills and videos from his phone, offers a tantalising view at what he is working on (to use a South African-ism) in the now-now.
Six years on from the passing of another of Shepherd’s major influences – Zim Ngqawana – the call of his mentor/friend (in studies called Zimology) to study the self, is also pivotal as a lesson in why/how Shepherd’s music keeps maturing. When audiences get to encounter the music, it is deeply moving. Let us jump for joy…
Photography by Lerato Maduna:
Born and raised in Johannesburg, Lerato Maduna currently lives in Cape Town where she studies film at CPUT. A graduate of the Market Photo Workshop, for the past eleven years Lerato has worked as a photojournalist and documentary photographer for a broad range of print publications and online platforms. Now, having freed herself from the factory of a corporate environment, she is working on redefining, reclaiming and rebuilding her identity as a mother, portrait photographer, filmmaker in the making, lover, sister and friend.