I suppose I should be writing about the depressing state of British politics as it goes through yet another reiteration of the past (again and again…), each time more farcical and increasingly more tragic than the last. But try as I may, right now I have to think about more positive things and there’s nothing more positive than music. That’s not to say that I haven’t been thinking a lot about the current situation here in the UK but I need time to digest events, their causes and possible outcomes.
Photo © William Bowles
It’s ages since I’ve written a music review, which though not exactly political in nature is nevertheless linked organically to politics, and having tracked down Paul Hanmer’s latest (I think) album ‘Accused No 1 – Nelson Mandela’ and one of my all time favourite musicians I just had to put pen to paper and tell you about this amazing artist.
You don’t know who Paul Hanmer is? Shame on you, you damn well should, so I’m putting it to rights. Cape Town born Hanmer is a pianist, composer, arranger, producer and the most original voice I’ve heard in a long time (and I’ve listened to a lot of music).
Jazz in South Africa is nearly as old as it is in the land of it birth, the US and the similarities don’t end there, for just as it did in the US, in South Africa it has undergone endless transformations over the decades. An amalgam of all kinds of influences but of course retaining its one, unique ingredient; improvisation.
Hanmer’s music is one culmination of just one facet of South African music, so diverse are its sources and inspirations, all of which find their echoes in Hanmer’s compositions as his explorations over the years reveal.
From ‘Train to Taung’ (1997), his first solo album (see the video below), to his his latest ‘Accused No 1 – Nelson Mandela’ (2008), reveals Hanmer’s restless pursuit of the same theme: exploring, synthesizing the many strands that make up South African music. Every one of Hanmer’s albums although all sounding very different, using different lineups, still make a wholeness. It’s a bit like an obsession, exploring the same theme over and over again but as if seeing it with new eyes and a new way of hearing it every time.
I suppose I should admit to having known Paul for twelve or more years during which time we hung out quite a bit and talked music endlessly, even at one point suggesting the idea of a musical collaboration between us (that came to nought). But Hanmer loves collaborations which can be seen from the vast array of musicians on his various albums and live performances as well his role as a producer of other artists.
But it’s his compositions that stand him apart from the rest of his contemporaries. Witty, insightful, evocative, lyrical and constantly surprising the listener by taking you where you least expect to go. I admit that a knowledge of South African musical culture is an advantage when it comes to trying contextualize the many musical forms that go to make up his music but even without the ‘inside knowledge’, listen to any of his compositions and one thing is immediately clear, he draws on a wide range of styles, from ‘Cape Jazz’ to traditional African music, classical, funk, even Kwaito pops up.
His instrumental lineups are equally diverse, employing string sections, all manner of percussion, harmonium, Eastern instruments as well as traditional brass, reeds and guitars.
The opening track ‘The Way the Wind Blue’ comes in two versions; the first is the full version and then a much shorter solo piano version closes out the album. As with all of Hanmer’s compositions, somehow his titles are on the money when they come to describing the song. The first of the ‘The Way the Wind Blue’ is like its title, breezy with a clear trumpet playing the melody, returning to the theme on top of Hanmer’s tasty comping. In the second solo version, the wind has changed direction ever so slightly, lighter too, it lilts along on the melody for a little over a minute.
‘Voortrekker Sokkie’ for example, uses an harmonium, trumpet and a sardonic vocal background chorus humming the harmony, all of it a play on traditional Afrikaaner folk music.
‘Tiekie Monsters’ by contrast is a vamp on a harmony, uptempo it has Paul jamming on the rhythm for three minutes.
‘The Life’ is unmistakably South African, with its lilting melody and bouncy rhythm and does just what the title suggests.
‘Gymnopedie Bleu’ is by contrast an eight minute-long pensive exploration conducted largely through a dialog between a muted trumpet and Paul’s piano.
‘Alphazulumonium’ finds Paul playing the harmonium again, echoing a traditional Zulu style that kinda morphs into something like a Tango and then back into the Zulu thing again.
‘Bobbejaanland’ is a slow drag bluesy composition that features Paul’s languid acoustic piano. I could go on, each track takes you to a different place but most definitely ‘A Prayer for Redemption’ is an outstanding track consisting of a one minute thirty seven second acoustic piano solo with its gospel-sourced chords, the title once again sums it up precisely.
As does ‘Gracie’s Place’ which finds a pensive Paul on acoustic piano accompanied by a soprano saxophone, very laid back, pastoral even, maybe Gracie lives in the country?
‘Ow Ow Ow Ow’ is the funky side of Paul’s palette, uptempo over a backbeat, Paul vamps on the rhythm.
Paul Hamner represents perhaps the best synthesis of what it is to be a South African musician today, with the mix of African, American, European, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American musical traditions, all coming together in Paul’s capable hands, assisted by an equally talented cross section of South African musicians. What makes Paul Hanmer such a sensitive and thoughtful player is that he listens, a rare talent unfortunately but you always get the sense that he is listening intently to his fellow artists, guiding and being guided all at the same time. But then that’s what jazz is all about no matter where it hails from.
The Way the Wind Blue
A Prayer for Redemption
Ow Ow Ow Ow
Laundry Day? (Groove)
Gymnopedie Bleu (Edit)
The Way the Wind Blue (Edit)
Accused No. 1 Nelson Mandela
Sheersound SSCD 125
It’s available on itunes and amazon for download, the drag being, you don’t know who is in the lineup.
Check out more on Paul Hanmer here at Sheer Sound Records. Here’s a track from his first solo album “Prop Hat” from ‘Trains to Taung’: