This reflection on my personal practice is a result of more than ten years of thought. My personal approach to composition and performance is the culmination of these years of thought and is stimulated by the constant search for methods by which to sufficiently explain the ideas that are so often transmitted in real time in the moment of improvisation and performance, i.e the research that is performed in practice.
Most of my earlier work is based on my idea of creating sound as “A Portrait of Home”, also the title of my second album (2010). The idea of home is invoked not only as a geographic space but as an internal space of rootedness, not as an anchor but as a springboard. In essence, I was following Abdullah Ibrahim’s advice: “When you write about something, write about what you know” (Ibrahim, 2016). This was a process of discovering what I knew.
Some of this knowledge derives from my own musical background. My musical upbringing was in classical music as I took violin lessons from the age of five until I was sixteen, after which I became interested in jazz, improvisation, composition and the piano. This interest is most likely attributed to the fact that my mother, Michele Shepherd, was working at Abdullah Ibrahim’s music school, M7, which was in Parliament Street in Cape Town at the time. I spent time with Ibrahim and other musicians at M7, both in their conversational company and listening to them play live in concert. Both conversations and performances were important in my development, but especially the frequent solo piano performances by Ibrahim affected me profoundly, and I realised that if I were to continue in music it would be because these performances constituted the reality I believed in. I wanted to perform and create music with the type of personal emotional expression I had failed to experience in playing classical music, and I decided that the only way for me to achieve this was through improvisation and jazz. The piano lent itself well to composition and enabled a self-sufficiency I still enjoy to this day. I dived into the instrument, teaching myself and composing from the start.
Two years later, I was playing professionally while I was still in my final year of high school.
Questions of identity encouraged me to explore the sounds of my immediate cultural and musical environment, necessitating a study of the music of Cape Town and South Africa. My study included the music of the minstrel bands, Malay choirs, nagtroepe, Christmas choirs, Christian hymns (I grew up as an Anglican) and Islamic calls to prayer – sounds that were familiar to me from the variety of Cape neighbourhoods in which I grew up. Outside of Cape Town, the rest of South Africa also provided fascinating musical materials. Through borrowed, bought or copied CDs too numerous to recall, I became acquainted with the sounds of Xhosa bow music (umrhubhe and uhadi), Khoi-San chants and tribal music of the Zulu, Pondo, Pedi and Shangaan cultural groups, which were all richly evocative. I proceeded to implement my engagements with these sounds on the piano.
Later, the music of other African countries became a fascination, such as the Wassoulou music from Mali (for instance Omou Sangaré’s Worotan, 1996), Shona mbira music from Zimbabwe (the compilation CD Africa: Zimbabwe – Shona Mbira Music is one example) and Gnawa music from Morocco (for instance Mamoud Ghania and Abdellah, Eat The Dream: Gnawa Music from Essaouira. Along with this enquiry into the music of my immediate environment as well as continental Africa, I also immersed myself in the music of the American jazz masters. I took a keen interest in the work of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk (following in the footsteps of Ibrahim, who counts these musicians among his key influences), Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett.
As my understanding of jazz grew, I began to seek out local Cape Town musicians who were playing either in the South African jazz style, like Errol Dyers, Robbie Jansen and Hilton Schilder in particular, and others who frequently performed in the American jazz styles, like Alvyn Dyers, Andrew Lilley, Buddy Wells, Charles Lazaar, Kesivan Naidoo, and most notably the multi-instrumentalist Mark Fransman and pianist Andre Peterson, who were friends and mentors to me.
After twelve years of playing professionally, composing and immersing myself in the traditions of the music, my focus is now on the connection between historical and contemporary practices. I strive to be firmly grounded in the musical traditions of my immediate environment, while also expressing influences from around the world. My desire is to create a musical bridge between the South African music with which I familiarised myself in my early work and a more overtly modern sound. I also stay attuned to contemporary pop music, rock and electronica from around the world, which has shaped the direction I currently pursue in my compositional approach and in the way I put together my various groups (I discuss this in greater detail below). In terms of my performance work, I have invested most time in my trio, for which I have composed music that incorporates input from each player. I endeavour to make each of us somehow emotionally engaged with the material, and view consultation as essential to achieving this as opposed to the composer (myself) providing all the material and suggesting the direction of that material in an authoritarian manner.
Reflecting on my early development, it strikes me that in my experience the jazz process is phenomenological, by which I mean that it entails being involved in the process of playing, composing and improvising to build a knowledge base. As Paul Berliner (1994, 41) writes, “as essential to students as technical information and counsel is the understanding of jazz acquired through performance”. Artistic development commonly takes place after the initial learning phase of the basics of jazz theory and performance, as well as a thorough knowledge of the canonical works and players in the history of the music. “Making music is its own kind of research,” Vijay Iyer asserts (in Hoffman, 2012: 4), “[t]he musicians that I like are experimenting constantly, testing ideas with an audience night after night, and trying to push the boundaries of what they know” (ibid.). Iyer’s statement suggests that beyond a basic level, learning jazz becomes a process of growth through experimentation.
When a jazz musician is younger in the music (not specifically in age), the initial stage of study entails learning from the elders (in music) in their immediate environment as well as from the seminal recordings of key players in jazz history (“key”, naturally, being subjective). However, experimentation and personal development through playing, and the interrogation thereof, is also vital. For example, jam sessions are essential for any player, particularly younger players. Here, musicians (whether they were personally acquainted or not) would play and improvise on the standard jazz repertoire together. These sessions provide a platform suited to experimentation with approaches to playing, sometimes beyond a musician’s existing knowledge base, yet remaining within the familiarity of the standard jazz repertoire. As Berliner (1994, 42) observes, “[a]t these informal musical get-togethers, improvisers are free of the constraints that a commercial engagement places upon repertory, length of performance, and the freedom to take artistic risks.”
In Cape Town, a weekly jam session run by guitarist Alvin Dyers at the “Swingers jazz club” in Wetton used to be the training ground for many of my generation of jazz musicians in Cape Town. It was here that we played with our peers, but most importantly we regularly had the opportunity to sit in with elder, more experienced and more skilled musicians. Many of us also “graduated” to be part of the house band led by Dyers, which I recall as an invaluable experience as it accelerated my development. I went on to play professionally for a few years, mostly jazz standards in restaurants and at functions, prompting new types of questions which I had a burning desire to answer before becoming a solo artist playing original music. These questions centered around the purpose of my music making and were made acute by my dream of achieving the type of artistry I saw in Abdullah Ibrahim, Zim Ngqawana, Hilton Schilder and Carlo Mombelli. The type of questions I would frequently ask myself were: What is the process for an artist to reach the stage where s/he contributes artistically, in other words where they reach a level of attainment that is beyond the development of a basic technique? Whether thinking about young players, or elder masters like Ibrahim and Keith Jarrett: What is the course their development process took, and how do I embark on such a course?
The artistic process is by nature subjective, difficult to define and explain; hence the challenges of practice-based research.
As a composer, improviser and person who engages in creating something from nothing on a daily basis, however, I find these challenges compelling. The question of where compositions and ideas come from is one that I do not have a definitive answer to, but as for my process I can say that it is simultaneously an intuitive and intellectual process. The initial phase of an idea is intuitive in the sense that it constitutes an awareness that goes beyond a practice routine, although this awareness often manifests amidst the mechanics of practice. Including improvisation in my practice is on the one hand counter-intuitive to the mechanical practice of technique, but it makes for exploratory practice, where I can go through the mechanics of technical practice while remaining attentive and receptive to the moment when the impulse of an intuitive process begins. That’s when the composer takes over from the player.
I have found that a mental, decision-based element exists and happens in real time in the practice room and on stage. Every note of every phrase is a decision.
Pianist Matthew Shipp’s (in Reitzes, 1999) description of recording an album captures how this process, oscillating between the familiar/planned/mechanical and the exploratory/improvisatory, works:
Some things are predominantly scored. Some things are nothing except for a verbal instruction, which could be as little as colour or as much as giving him a group of notes and a rhythm and telling him what to do with it. Or sometimes just like chord changes on a piece of paper and a directional idea. Sometimes one part is completely written and everything else is improvised. There’s a piece on an upcoming album with Matt Maneri where the piano part is written out totally and I just tell him to improvise over it. Sometimes I come out with a violin line written and I improvise the accompaniment. Some things are totally improvised, some things are totally written. How you go about putting a section together definitely determines the character of it. Depending on the character you’re looking at, the methodology is different all the time.
Basically for that album [a duo with Roscoe Mitchell], we spent all day in the studio. I didn’t give him any [music] – his parts were all improvised. I planned a bunch of stuff I was going to do and I knew how he would react, because in rehearsals throughout the years with his group, I was kind of reacting on maybe sections of music he had written – and of course I came up with his music. And then for this album I further abstracted that. Like, I would come up with parts that were based on parts I had come up with on my own in the context of his music. Right, so then I further abstracted it and came up with a bunch of gestural ideas and piano parts based on that, knowing he would react in certain ways because we had kind of covered those areas accidentally in rehearsals or maybe, like, once in a performance and I remembered it. So I came up with something knowing that in a performance of this piece, this accidentally happened once two years ago and he reacted that way. So I scripted a piano part knowing he would probably react similarly.
I quoted this passage at length, because it illustrates an approach to composition that is a combination of improvisation, musical personality dynamics (when playing with others) and situational awareness.
This is the very essence of the jazz music-making process, where improvisation is entangled with composition and social awareness.
Situational awareness in performances and/or in recording sessions/rehearsals, which I explore in the next section, is an important dimension for the jazz player/composer to engage with.
Performance as situational awareness
In addition to the compositional/improvisational dynamics at work in a particular piece, decision-making in live performance also includes decisions about which composition to flow into, when to bring in the band, when to make space for the other players to improvise and when to explore an improvised introduction or ending (a common element of the piano trio is for the pianist to improvise an intro or outro to a piece based on the piece it precedes or follows). All this happens in an active, embodied way in the moment. It is perhaps why improvisation is among the most difficult things to do in music. Not only are phrases improvised, but also touch, fingering, tempo, pedaling and dynamics are all decided intuitively in the moment.
My approach to concerts has always been to play my own compositions. However, I never decide on a set list, as I like to use my intuition to absorb the feeling of the room in terms of the audience and the acoustics. The unfolding of the programme is decided in the moment along with the decision-making process I describe above. I have always thought of performance as a happening, something that is alive, and a response to the situation in which the players find themselves. Playing in many different countries has honed this situational awareness and the ability to discern and submit to the specifics of a moment. If I am to be true to the intuitive aspect of performance, then I must be prepared to be moved into uncomfortable and unknown spaces in the music. It is not enough merely to rehash a well-practiced performance.
Whether a performer has played a composition many times or not (and sometimes it is better if not), jazz requires an exploration of themes. For a jazz musician, the necessity to forge new pathways within the music is inescapable. As a leader, I have always preferred to hear my fellow musicians thinking and submitting to the flow of the moment in an unplanned way, even if the material we are playing consists of set compositions. Similar to sport, the flow state is paramount to an inspired performance, as much as the mechanics of playing the instrument is. All judgment and self-criticism is set aside and left for the practice room. When on stage, the requirement is to be totally present and aware of the music in that particular moment and space. The difficulty of doing this makes truly inspired performances an uncommon phenomenon. One often hears a musician describing an inspired performance by saying that they felt as though they “lost themselves” in the music. It is this total loss of inhibitions that I aspire to in every performance. I have always attempted to play with an intention beyond merely sounding good. And I believe that with a situational awareness and complete acceptance, one is able to play the notes that are perfect for that moment, for the geographic environment and acoustical space.
At the heart of this process, however, is a paradox: on one hand the process of creation in performance that I have described is introspective, and the other it includes an external attentiveness to audience, co-musicians and performance space that the notion of situational awareness suggests. This is a paradox that many musicians are aware of.
When Jason Moran asked Andrew Hill about his thoughts on solo concerts, Hill replied, “I only respond to the audience’s energy” (Hill in Moran, 2014). Brad Mehldau (2007) commented on certain ground-breaking musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane‟s relationship with audiences: “It’s like they’re saying “Fuck you, I love you”, they’re gonna do whatever they want and assert their own will and not worry about how it’s going to be understood. Yet the wonderful thing about that is that it speaks to people”. A turbulent relationship is still a relationship, and Mehldau’s observation speaks to a deep sense of appreciation of the role of the audience.
In my opinion, audiences have, for as long as the concert-going experience has existed, completely underestimated their important role in the music-making process. Performers involved in an intuitive process, i.e. improvising, are receptors of the energy people radiate. Many performers flow on the good vibration of a room full of people they subconsciously know are there to listen and experience their music wholeheartedly.
Mehldau’s description shows that the performer-audience relationship is one of respect in the way musicians expect the audience to “get it”. It is not indicative of a willingness to compromise the performance for the sake of anyone who may not be able to follow. This commitment is something influential artists have in common; an ethos I aspire to and attempt to emulate on every occasion. My commitment is to being intuitively connected to the moment. Even though I predominantly play predetermined original compositions, there is scope for exploration within any piece and physical situation.
Below I focus on some of the ideas introduced in this section, and describe how they are implemented in particular forms of my practise. I will structure my discussion according to the formats that I most commonly perform and work in: solo, and trio.
I approach solo playing as a completely different performance practice to that of trio and bigger ensemble playing. With fellow musicians, the sense of community and musicianship within the practice of playing together is what creates the beauty. The individuality of each player in a group set-up is what creates a canvas to which the song and improvisation add colour and texture. Within a solo framework, however, the solitude allows for deeper exploration of the pianist as composer/improviser. It constitutes an emotionally charged intellectual exploration of themes and improvisation (whether within the framework of a composition or not).
In essence, solo playing addresses, in a highly introspective manner, the past (that which was studied), the present (the current musical level of the player) and the future (revealed through the exploratory element of improvisation).
Introspection entails that the artist/musician/performer becomes an acutely attentive listener within this situation. The criterion in solo playing is that the musician explores him/her-self, as opposed to a group setting where the musicality and individuality of two or more players are equally considered and accommodated.
With solo performances, much of the quality and potential impact of the music has to do with my personal state of mind at the time of the performance. As it is such an introspective process, I find that my preparation is more mental than physical. Preparing my mind for any eventuality is often the most important part of my process (musical preparation is, of course, a given). With my trio there is always a safety net. If I am not in tune with the moment I can rely on one or both of my fellow musicians to provide sufficient musical substance to inspire me out of the lull. With solo playing, however, it is only me, the instrument and the audience. Often a self-induced “letting go” is required moments before walking on the stage. One is vulnerable when you are sitting alone in front of an audience, and the vulnerability becomes exponentially more powerful the larger the audience and prestige of the occasion or venue. To fight this, I often have to recite a type of mantra to myself, one that subjectively reassures me of the validity of the work, whether true or not, and its ability to stand on its own. The task is to “let go” of any mental hindrances that may obstruct the flow of the music.
This “letting go” was probably the most valuable aspect of music I learned during my brief and informal tuition at the Zimology Institute where I was an apprentice of Zim Ngqawana. Ngqawana always encouraged one to know the basics of skilful playing and for one to reach a point of competence, but also to be familiar with letting go of those learned “safety nets”. In hindsight, I realise that the highest of artistic endeavours often involve going beyond technical skill. It begs the question: “What is beyond compositional and playing technique?” Going “beyond” includes going beyond what is often considered as the aesthetic part of music, described with such superlatives as “beautiful”, “skillful” and “masterful”.
In my practice, the “letting go” state in performance is achieved once one has succeeded in overcoming the idea of placing particular importance on conventional aesthetic considerations. The best musicians absorb the conventions of aesthetic beauty and technical mastery, and go further to deliver performances that are inspired. When we move beyond what’s aesthetically beautiful and pleasing to the ear, then creativity in sound creation becomes possible.
An important part of music making is musical fellowship. Finding common ground among a group of players, often stemming from common ideals of musical aesthetics, is incredibly joyful and musically enriching. Although solo performances have always been held in high regard, the most seminal and celebrated jazz of all eras emerged from group settings. As Threadgill (in Iverson, n.d.) puts it, “you make music the same way you have baseball teams, football teams and basketball teams: […] with some great key players. The Duke Ellington Orchestra would not have sounded like that with just anybody in the orchestra”. In other words, the individuals comprising the group and the resulting chemistry is what moves us.
When playing in piano trio, the format in which I most frequently perform, the responsibility for exploration rests on all three players, each feeding off the other in a symbiotic relationship that requires attentive commitment. The compositions may be new or older, but according to the aesthetic that was decided among the group, the direction is unspoken but clear. I have chosen to play with Shane Cooper (double bass) and Jonno Sweetman (drums) for the last eight years. As each individual in the band comes from a varied musical background, writing music for the group and finding common ground is a challenge.
In our early years, I presented a singular vision to Shane and Jonno of what I wanted in the music. I was steeped in the study of Cape Town and South African jazz. As we evolved as a trio in subsequent years, I felt that the group stopped progressing and I realised that in order to find further directions to explore, I should pay attention to the musicians I play with. I thought that if I listed the musical influences and backgrounds of all three of us, I would end up with a more diverse and complex register of possibilities. Most notable was the fact that my musical foundation was completely different to that of Shane and Jonno, who had more musical common ground with one another than I had with either of them. I saw this as an opportunity for me to grow, and I started to listen to the musicians that Cooper and Sweetman were talking about when we were together on tours. This exploration took me to rock musicians, electronic and contemporary musicians like Flying Lotus (Cosmogramma), Deantoni Parks (Technoself- Bombay), Thom Yorke (The Eraser), Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto (UTP_) to name a few.
The use of unconventional instrumentation, form and the general sound aesthetic created by these electronic musicians offer a completely new set of possibilities to the sometimes static-sounding jazz band. This is particularly true if one considers that the jazz trio has for a long time had (and continues to have) a standard instrumentation, comprised of piano, double bass and drums. Electronic music opened a completely new soundworld for me, and the possibilities it offered for sound creation unshackled by the conventions of what is considered aesthetically pleasing in jazz, greatly stimulated my musical imagination. In this way it connected to the idea of achieving post-competence: to me it presented a shift in focus from technically skillful music to the creation of sound and texture. After researching and considering the musical influences of Shane and Jonno, I decided to write music not only for my personal expression, but for all three of us in the trio to express “our” personal sounds. I found it useful to present compositions that were 90% complete in order to leave space for the composition to be completed by the other players.
In an interview I conducted with Jonno Sweetman (2016), he reflects on this development from his perspective on the drum chair. In the spirit of giving voice to each member of the trio, I quote him (and later Shane Cooper) at length, as these quotations capture the dynamic from another perspective than my own:
The way to start talking about it [the Kyle Shepherd Trio] would be how, from my perspective, how the band was formed from the beginning. Kyle’s music was already being played in a sort of a bigger band setting, with [his] FineART Quartet. That was with Claude Cozens on drums, Dylan Tabisher on bass and Buddy Wells on sax. That was, from what I could hear, a take on the traditional Cape jazz sound. I got a call to do a gig with Kyle in early 2008. That gig took me by surprise a little bit because Kyle was playing alto saxophone and Shane was playing electric bass. My first take on it was like “ok cool we’re gonna do something very modern”, and I sort of went into an approach where I was thinking very much along the lines of cross over electronica music and very third stream rock contemporary kind of stuff I was thinking about at that stage. And I came with that kind of sensibility.
When we started playing the music, I realised that Kyle was not on that thing and he was very much still on the journey of traditional Cape music and that sort of sound. So the first initial gig for me personally was a thing of like “Ok cool. I think I’ve got this wrong” and in a way I don’t think it was a negative thing at all. I think it was just a realisation and instead of me thinking this is not for me, I just felt that there was something really deep in this music and I really wanted to be a part of it. And then after those initial gigs he booked me for a concert where he was playing piano and we delved into the traditional sound and we had done some rehearsals as well and it was very much about getting to grips with the ethnic sounds of the Khoi-San, stuff that Abdullah Ibrahim was doing and the drummers that played with him. That’s a sound that I was aware of but had never worked on. So that was the start for me. I took it on and really immersed myself. I felt it wasn’t something that just happened easily, it was something I had to search for and after the first year I felt like something really special was happening and I started to fall in love with the music and understand where Kyle was coming from. From then on the music has slowly evolved and it’s become slightly more towards what I initially thought it was. And I think that’s really the thread because initially Kyle was also on that journey and we’ve met somewhere later on.
And I think now playing in a trio format, which is smaller than some of the other big ensembles like the quintets and sextets that we played in early on, I think that’s really made it free to explore any sort of ideology or new sound or anything. So, Kyle brings all the music and we interpret it. There’s a lot of freedom given to me to play against the rhythm or play with it. I don’t need to read the chart. It’s initially just an outline or a sketch. Often the rhythms and the composition when we first get it is not something that I can hear and immediately get a sense for, but it’s something that I also have to search for. I guess that’s something else that comes to mind is that the music is becoming more natural to me but it’s very much a thing of searching for me. I search to find Kyle’s ideas and once I find them I have this complete freedom because I’ve worked for it in my own mind. It’s a special thing. There’s a lot of freedom in it but there’s also a lot of searching. So, the combination of all of that makes this trio which to me is one of the most important parts of my career.
As a group, we have had two discernible periods: the early years when I presented my musical vision that was steeped in the traditions of South African jazz, and the period we are currently in, where we explore “borderless” sounds. Currently, being connected to contemporary society is more important to me than ever.
Jazz was never intended to be a preservationist art.
Revivalism has its place in jazz modernism; there is an unspoken rule that a player should always show “where he/she comes from” musically, if not geographically. However, it is also important to reference one’s roots in a way that has one foot in history and the other in the contemporary. This is not prescriptive of the way all jazz musicians should approach their art, but it certainly is the ethos embraced by many of the contemporary jazz artists that I currently listen to in shaping my own direction.
Particularly with the trio, I think of my performances as explorations into multi-tonality, a cliff-dive into multi-metric themes with an overarching commitment to taking people on a journey into themselves and back. This journey is on one hand a sonic autobiography of each player, but also a creation of a sonic image in performance which, almost like a reflector, enables the audience to form their own ideas and emotions.
In an interview, I asked the other member of the trio, Shane Cooper (2016), to comment on the processes involved in playing in my trio:
I often think of the three pillars of music as shapes: rhythm, harmony and melody, forming shapes to create different levels of detail in sound pictures. Creating environments, aural environments and sonic environments. Spaces with depth and shape that can have different interpretations depending on your perception and understanding of music and references and so on. And I think Kyle creates a highly advanced level of musical environments and sonic environments through his varied approaches to these three pillars.
Often times in your typical rhythm section format or trio format, the fundamental responsibility of each group member (in a piano trio specifically) would be that of rhythm supplying something of a train track, if I can use the metaphor of a train which is always useful in music. The drums create the train track, the bass creates the body of the train and the harmony and melody, particularly from the piano, create the characters inside the train and the scenes going on inside the train … the stories of the music. These are the things that people remember after a concert or listening to a recording. The melody, the harmony, the emotion it creates and the lives of these people in the cabin, if you are looking from a zoomed-out perspective.
Whereas Kyle allows the trio to alternate roles, switch roles and morph these roles in a very organic way that allows for looking at this train almost from an alternate universe perspective, flipping it inside out, upside down, changing the colour spectrum, all sorts of ways you can look at one particular scene and have different perceptions of it. He can simultaneously observe both sides of the coin and let you explore these sides freely as a member of the trio, and I think this is something that the audience can also observe because there’s an amount of risk-taking on the bandstand that is palatable and is a result of allowing this equation to take place. I think an audience member can be excited by this, realising the amount of freedom and the amount of risk this approach employs.
I think that it excites me in that regard even more than free improvised music because we are playing around themes and structures but I feel that there is an energy and a risk that is as potent as you find in free improvised music, but it is even further propelled by the strength of Kyle’s themes, melodic and harmonic content. Now he also draws from a wide variety of influences in his music, which shows his broad understanding of various styles both contemporary and classic within in jazz, classical, African, South African music, rock music and more. [Elements] that are used in a very organic way in his writing and he encourages Jonno Sweetman and myself to explore other influences that we have from our individual interests and tastes outside of jazz and what one might come to expect from a jazz trio typically, which leads even further to very open fields of sound and music that we are enabled to explore through his approach as a band leader and composer.
There is also much freedom within a performance to push and pull in a healthy relationship between the 3 of us where Kyle is the leader and he has first say in the direction of composition in the rehearsal room as well as on the bandstand but there is also a freedom to also pull the group into another direction and openness within the group to take a left turn at any given moment which adds to the group as well (2016).
Vijay Iyer’s description of his own particular group playing process is one to which I subscribe as well: “In a non-“soloistic” way of improvising, we can build something together. See what other constructions can come out that way. It’s basically a rhythm section mentality, a rhythm player’s mentality. In the rhythm section you’re always improvising anyway. Even if you’re playing a song, every sound you make is a choice. And you’re making choices relationally with regard to what everyone else is doing” (quoted in Moran 2014). I think of group playing, and especially band leading, as an exercise in managing individuals in order to get the best possible level of playing from each one of the group. To achieve this, my approach has been to create a group dynamic where everyone contributes to the outcome of the music and sufficient space is made for each individual’s musical voice to be heard, even in my own compositions and playing. In this way, the music is always on a higher level than if I were to imagine everything by myself. Perhaps this is why the existence of improvisation is so integral to the character of jazz. Even though the composer suggests the themes, structure and feel of the music, the players, through their improvisation, inevitably bring something of themselves to the music.
My music has progressed through a development process from being overtly South African sounding, as it was at the beginning of my career, to having a South Africanism at its core. Currently it is an assimilation of the history of South African pianism while looking to go beyond this history. Its intrinsic nature is South African, but the pianism and the music it serves include many other elements irrespective of geographical places of origin or borders. The process for an artist entails the constant redefinition of ideals and motivation that is essential to the becoming of the art. This process is inclusive of widely contrasting ideologies in artistic approach. Some artists have a clearly defined sound in which they play and create consciously and they make great efforts to preserve this sound. This approach is completely musically valid, and it takes up the challenge of developing artistically authentic music. In contrast, there are other artists who manage to remain open in their approach, without a clearly defined sound and with an enduring interest in a varied and ever developing sound palette. My attempt is to incorporate, in varying degrees, both of these approaches represented to some degree by Abdullah Ibrahim and Zim Ngqawana.
The above article is an excerpt from Interrogating the Own: A Practice-based, Auto-ethnographic Reflection on Musical Creation with Reference to the Work of Abdullah Ibrahim, Zim Ngqawana and Kyle Shepherd, by Kyle Shepherd, submitted in partial fulfilment of the degree Masters of Music, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Stellenbosch University. Supervisor Dr. Stephanie Vos, co-supervisors: Prof. Stephanus Muller and Dr. Jonathan Eato.
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