By Marlon Burgess
I’ve convinced Marlon Burgess, Cape Town-born musician and graduate student who recently moved to New York City, to occasionally contribute regular blog posts to Africa is a Country (my theory about strength numbers refers). He agreed to write a review of young jazz pianist and bandleader Kyle Shepherd‘s debut album, “Fine Art:
Sitting in a studio in Brooklyn, New York, with a few musicians earlier this month, we heard a rough cut of a few of people playing around in someone’s bedroom in Cape Town. Stillness accompanied by furrowed brows and quizzical stares ensued. A deep sense of familiarity swirled. Whoever was tickling the ebonies and ivories knew exactly who was being invoked and yet made their own presence emphatically felt.
This was my late introduction to this young pianist. It’s hard to resist a child protégé. However, as child protégés go, twenty-one is a touch late for the release of a first album. Having said that, nobody is going to hold this against Kyle Shepherd after listening to his debut outing: fineART.
An alluring tension is maintained throughout this project, between the musician’s own burgeoning artistic personality and the embodiment of the masters that have defined the South African jazz sound. For instance the opening statement, “Zimology,” [you can listen to it on Shepherd's MySpace page--Sean]is a tribute to the eminent Zim Ngqawana under whose tutelage Shepherd found himself in 2007.
Listening to the rest of the record illustrates vividly the lineage he’s acknowledged in interviews to date; Hilton Schilder, Errol Dyers, Robbie Jansen and not least Abdullah Ibrahim. Ibrahim’s influence can be felt most dramatically on “Die Ghoema” [also available for listen on MySpace--Sean], which captures the rhythmic essence of the Western Cape, and “A.I”. The latter seems to be a play on artificial intelligence but presumably stands for the legendary pianist’s initials which is a fitting homage given the sensitivity with which Shepherd treats space in this piece.
The personnel on this venture, a quartet featuring Buddy Wells (sax), Shane Cooper (double bass) and Claude Cozens (drums), breathe life into Shepherd’s compositions with due respect to the tradition they are channeling. Ultimately the balance that this album treads, a deeply familiar spirit with highly memorable tunes conjured from a fresh perspective, renders this simultaneously a career launcher and a classic in the making.