Bokani Dyer: Jazz, Grahamstown & Goldfish  

by Evan Milton

At just 25, jazz pianist and composer Bokani Dyer has seen his music take him to Sweden, Norway and New York, win the 2011 Standard Bank Young Artists Award and dabble with house-music hits. His is a strong, individual sound, but also an emblem of the rise of a new wave of contemporary South Africa jazz voices.

Bokani Dyer's debut album, "Mirrors", was presented in a hand-stitched cloth cover - a hint at the attention and craftsmanship lavished on its musical contents. On the first track, "Prelude", a bold stanza of solo piano introspection gives segues into an accomplished melody used to introduce some of Dyer's fellow young Cape lions: Lwanda Gogwana (trumpet), Sisonke Xonti (tenor saxophone), Chris Engel (alto saxophone) and Helder Gonzago (bass). Elsewhere on the album are Shane Cooper (double-bass), Angelo Syster (guitar) and Orlando Venereque (saxophones). Audiences and critics alike would be hard-pressed not to have their mouths starting to water at yet more evidence of a new young contemporary jazz scene developing on the southern tip.

Dyer has just completed a new album and sent it off for mastering with, hopefully, copies on hand for purchase by National Arts Festival audiences. "What's different in this one?" he says over a capuccino at the trendily offbeat Hello Sailor in Observatory's Lower Main Road. "That's tough, but the new album is more coherent. On 'Mirrors', I tried to do a lot of different things; I was using different people and it was recorded during three different periods over three years. This time there is one sound with one band, and material from one period - as well as me understanding what I really want the music to say."

This sense of self-preposession - along with sheer keyboard talent - helped Dyer win the 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist Award that allowed him the time for the new recording, and also saw him as runner-up in the 2009 SAMRO piano contest. "I've been lucky to have a good streak," he laughs. "I used the prize money from the SAMRO Award to go to New York and attend masterclasses at the Manhattan School of Music." His eyes almost mist over as he recounts lessons with firebrand pianist and MacArthur recipient Jason Moran.

"It's completely different studying there: so very modern, but still understanding the tradition. The curriculum is designed for steady growth and monitoring that growth. It's also really easy to get jazz jam sessions with other musicians - that should be made easier at places here, like UCT's College of Music. There are also just such great teachers there - I sat in on a lecture by Dave Liebman… It was four hours long! He's part of jazz history, he played with Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis and there he is, telling you stories and telling you about playing and how to play."

It is not only from academies that Dyer draws his inspiration. He also recently completed a debut album for Plan Be, his soul-groove project with vocalist Sakhile Moleshe (you know him as the voice behind many a banging hit by Goldfish). Also, Dyer cites living next door to Tagore's in Observatory's Trill Road as a serious musical influence. "I spend so much time there, just listening to people play, and watching what they do. It's small, but it has the best musicians in town, and visiting ones too. Things like that, for the jazz nights as well as when DJ Ntone spins his African mixes, and the online radio that happens every year when the Pan African Space Station comes around - that's what people should be listening to, to be exposed to a lot of interesting music. If you don't listen to it, if you don't go out and find it, then you won't know what's going on in music."

Bokani Dyer plays his Standard Bank Young Artist Award showcase with a septet including Marcus Wyatt (trumpet) and Buddy Wells (saxophones) on Friday 1 July (DSG Hall, 7.30pm) and leading a trio on Wednesday 6 July (DSG Hall, 5pm). He also plays with UK saxophonist and MC Soweto Kinch ("Tales of The Tower Block", "New Emancipation") and Dutch "Best Guitarist" winner Anton Goudsmit on Saturday 2 July (DSG Hall, 19.30) and again with Kinch and a South African ensemble including SBYAA winner Kesivan Naidoo (drums) on Sunday 3 July (DSG Hall, 22.00 -- note that Tumi is no longer on the Grahamstown bill). See for details. Cape Townian audiences can hear Dyer at the Silent Revolution Winter Jazz Series at the Fugard Theatre playing with Kinch (Thursday 7 July, 7.30pm), and with fellow Standard Bank Young Artist Award winners Melanie Scholtz, Kesivan Naidoo and Mark Fransman on (Friday 8 July, 7.30pm). More on and He is also booked for Johannesburg's "Joy of Jazz" in August.

First appeared in the Mail & Guardian of 2011/07/01

Music journalist, Digital marketing strategist, SA Music Awards judge and radio DJ for Fine Music Radio.

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