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Sunday, July 12, 2015


(Reviews from the artSMart team currently in Grahamstown at the 2015 National Arts Festival)

World-class big band plays the music of Ann-Sofi Söderqvist. (Review by Keith Millar)

The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown incorporates the Standard Bank Jazz Festival which in itself is a very important international event. The Jazz Festival in turn incorporates the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival.

Top flight jazz musicians and bands, both local and from abroad are attracted to Grahamstown every year to take part in this stupendous occasion. In the region of 50 concerts are staged over the duration of the festivities, mostly at the Jazz Hub which is situated at the Diocesan School for Girls (DSG).

There are also regular Jam sessions where the musicians get together, later at night, to entertain, have fun and unwind.

Many of the concerts are in the form of collaborations between musicians from different bands and even from countries. These have often led to long-term relationships which have proved fruitful in the development of jazz music in the country.

A group which has formed particularly close ties with South African musicians since it first visited the Standard Bank Jazz Festival 10 years ago is the world-class big band, the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra. This ensemble has been in existence for 30 years and comprises 17 musicians who all have solo jazz careers in their own right. They get together as the SJO to perform concerts and to tour all over the world.

It was my privilege to see this orchestra in concert, playing the music of Ann-Sofi Söderqvist. She is often referred to as Sweden’s answer to Maria Schneider, the American band leader who graced the festival last year. However, Söderqvist herself is a very gifted composer and arranger and is the Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm.

The concert began with a lively and fiery number aptly entitled Fire which aptly demonstrated the orchestra’s tight ensemble playing and lyrical improvisation. The other songs on the programme, all composed by Söderqvist, included the impressive voice of the attractive and very talented vocalist Lena Swanberg. She not only sings lyrics but also uses her voice as an instrument in the orchestra.

Söderqvist’s music is descriptive, moving and even sometimes quiet emotional. Included were songs such as A Bien Tot, which is about love lost, Prayer which was composed after the massacre of over 60 young people at a Norwegian Island youth camp and the delightful The Bear Walks in C.

A group of four South African vocalists joined the orchestra as backing singers for a few of the songs in a concert which was surprisingly, for a big band performance, orientated towards the voice. However.  the orchestra did not fail to impress both with its classy, tight big band sound and its outstanding solos.

At least half the audience at this concert was made up of attendees of the Youth Jazz Festival. One can only imagine the benefit these young musicians will derive from being involved in this wonderful festival.

The Standard Bank Jazz Festival is a huge and exciting event. A Jazz Music fanatic could immerse themselves in the activities at the Jazz Hub and not even be aware of the some 500 productions taking place elsewhere in Grahamstown. – Keith Millar

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