I owe my time with Bheki to Russell Herman.
Russell Herman, guitarist in Brian Abraham’s District Six, whom I had met some years before when I had been hanging out around Dudu Pukwana gigs with Django, Gwen Ansell and other friends, rang me sometime around 1990 to ask me if I’d like to come and have a play with Bheki. I said, sure, why not, thinking Bheki was Beckie, Rebecca, a girl!
I came down to Oval House in Kennington, Russell came to meet me and introduced me to Bheki who was seated at the piano. We spent some hours just playing, Bheki laying some chords down and me picking it up by ear. It felt good. It has always been important for me to play with good pianists – my Dad was one and I play a bit myself. I’d spent a bit of time hanging out with and learning from John Taylor when I was just out of college and then I had also been lucky enough to hook up with Django Bates and Pete Saberton. I recognised something in Bheki’s music and in his playing that I felt close to, and I think he felt the same about me.
I began jotting down the chords as Bheki was playing – Bheki sometimes wrote long, complicated sequences that were hard to grasp and remember without the dots – and after a while that turned into writing down the tunes, bass lines, and rhythmic feels as well. Bheki’s conception was usually pretty comprehensive – he would compose the melody, the rhythmic feel including tricky accented phrases, and the harmony, all in one – and so it was important not to be approximate, but to get all the information down accurately. I think Bheki also liked the fact that I could repeat the chord voicings back to him on the piano too, and occasionally that would lead to us swapping on stage: him on tenor sax, me on piano. But we didn’t do this very much – I was not confident enough on piano at the time.
I’ve always tried to give other people’s music as much commitment as I can when I am invited to be a “sideman”. It comes from my time at University rehearsing difficult contemporary music, where nothing half-hearted will do. It was probably the clarinet maestro Alan Hacker who gave me this – a feeling of putting all your energy into making this music work, making it come alive. In the early days of Django’s Human Chain band I tried to use all of my experience and understanding to make his music work; Django was broadening his musical horizons beyond conservative conventions of jazz at the time, and my history with contemporary classical music as well as other kinds of music seemed to suit his concept. So when it came to playing with Bheki I’d had a fair amount of experience in playing on chord changes, but I’d also been listening to and playing different kinds of rhythmic traditions from around the world, so that helped me to understand what Bheki was doing.
When I had met Russell Herman some years before, he had been recreating some music that he had made with musicians (under the collective title Es-Studio) in South Africa: “People Symphony”, a McLoughlin-inspired sequence of pieces using acoustic instruments, involving slash-chord harmony and odd time signatures. The project never really took off at this time, but Russell recognised that I had an affinity with this sound; perhaps it was this that prompted him to contact me years later about Bheki. I recognised something of this vibe in Bheki’s music and it was certainly there in the spiritual content: a revolutionising, revelatory surprise that says: there is no black or white, there is love. Sitting behind is Coltrane, Daddy Coltrane, as SA drummer Kesivan Naidoo says.
So in the early 1990’s Bheki’s band was playing around in London and in the UK – there was a Jazz Services tour and some other gigs; then somehow, involving great sacrifice on Russell’s (and Russell’s family’s) part, the American rhythm section arrived: the astounding Marvin Smitty Smith on drums and beautiful Michael Bowie on bass. “Celebration” was recorded in a few nights and the recording was surrounded by gigs and a TV appearance. Smitty is the heart and soul of the party. His positive, uplifting vibes, his love and beaming humour, and above all his superlative musicianship hold these performances together. Bheki could not have hoped for a more committed and able pair of allies. My own playing was given the space to blossom during this time too – I described it to friends as a bit like getting into an extremely powerful and luxurious car. When Smitty threw the time around in one of his incredible fills, I didn’t have to panic and lose my place in the music (although I sometimes did!) – Smitty always landed in the perfectly right place, with ease and grace; and Bheki would accompany me with gentle harmonies and complementary rhythmic phrasing, never getting in the way; and always beneath was Michael, grooving away with a gentle and natural musicianship. This quartet (with Charnette Moffatt on bass when Michael was otherwise busy) played at Montreux, Amsterdam Drum and Johannesberg Jazz Festival.
After this Bheki made recordings and festival appearances either on his own or with Elvin Jones, Pharoah Sanders, Kent Jordan and others. Later still, when he was not in South Africa he began playing with Gareth Lochrane and Julian Siegel. And then Gareth rang me with the sad news. I played at the celebration of Bheki’s life at the South African Embassy, along with many others, and it was an amazing, uplifting, joyous and sad occasion.
Then in 2012 there was a beautiful postscript to my time with Bheki: I was contacted by Afrika Mkhize, a brilliant pianist and composer and protégé of Bheki’s in South Afrika. He had won the Standard Bank Jazz Musician of the Year Award, and he wanted to do a tribute to Bheki as part of his performances at Grahamstown Festival. He invited me, and from the moment I arrived I was overwhelmed: people knew and respected me! It seems that the album Celebration, and particularly the track Angola, have become very significant for a whole generation of young players in South Africa… I had no idea, and I was astounded when musicians started to sing my solo to me note for note! Bheki’s work has inspired the emerging musicians of South Africa, encouraging them to make new connections in their music, to embrace and explore harmony and chord changes, to look outside to other musical influences both in the broader African continent and in the rest of the world. The performances at Grahamstown were emotionally charged and full of love, and I met a number of musicians who I will consider friends for life. I realised while I was onstage with these beautiful musicians just how much I miss Bheki. When I returned to UK I renewed my friendship with Eugene Skeef, a close friend and colleague of Bheki’s who I had met some years before, and this is a friendship that has blossomed in all kinds of ways and led to new friendships including with pianist Kit Downes…
Thank you Bheki!