It was a few minutes past six o’clock on the evening of Sunday, February 26, 2017. The audience’s mood was ecstatic, having earlier been treated to fantastic musical performances by several jazz groups. Indeed, the mood was right; the crowd was getting ready for the main attraction of the Safaricom International Jazz Festival: saxophonist David Sanborn. And true to the billing, the world-renowned jazz man didn’t let down the jazz fans. Playing his trademark alto saxophone and wearing an earpiece to aid him monitor the sound on the broad stage, Sanborn, who was accompanied by stellar session musicians from the US, performed an array of songs from some of his earlier recordings such as Another Hand, and also more recent ones such as Camel Island, Ordinary People (from his current album), and Spanish Joint, by D’Angelo, among others.
There was an unexpected sense of awe among most of the audience when he introduced one of his masterpieces, the African-inspired slow groove, Maputo.
Performing almost non-stop and showing no signs of any creative fatigue — this despite his long and impressive career — rhythmic grooves filled the outdoor venue quite abundantly. In any case, what would you expect from a master performer leading an outfit of six sidemen, three of whom were playing assorted percussion instruments? Throughout his repertoire that evening, there were a variety of rhythmic patterns that flowed ceaselessly. Sanborn, who was on the stage for more than an hour, was not short of jazz sounds that were flavoured with slick soul, rhythm and blues, and funky grooves. He closed the show with one of his audience’s favourite ballad, The Dream.
At 71, Sanborn, is a multi-Grammy Award winner who has released more than 24 albums as a leader in a career that spans over 40 years now. The jazz festival’s fourth year offering also featured artistes from Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Israel, UK, and the Kingdom of Belgium. Kenya was represented by two youthful Afro-jazz groups namely, Shamsi Music, which was formed in 2014, and Nairobi Horns, an equally recent outfit whose music is heavy on brass sounds — trombone, trumpet and saxophone.
From outside of Kenya were Hussein Masimbi, an impressive percussionist from Tanzania, who also sings while playing the congas; clarinetist Arun Ghosh from the United Kingdom; keyboardist-vocalist Ray Lema, who is originally from DR Congo but now living in France; keyboardist Bokani Dyer from South Africa; The Hazelnuts, an Israeli ladies-only vocal trio (Yifeat Ziv, Talya Amzaleg, and Shira Z. Carmel) backed by instrumentalists; and Taxi Wars, a Belgian jazz-fusion band.
I was impressed by Arun’s tone and phrasings on that rarely played wind instrument in jazz settings in this region. His notes and chords were well placed in the various settings he was featured, first with the Nairobi Horns, then the percussionist Masimbi.
Bokani, a young visionary keyboardist, played his own compositions, like the other groups, and had a very impressive sense of jazz chords and improvisations on the Fender Rhodes. On a piece titled Vuvuzela, where the trio was accompanied by saxophonist Rabai of Nairobi Horn’s, the keyboardist played block, bluesy chords for the intro that immediately gave a hint that he was inspired by his older compatriot, the world-famous pianist Abdulah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand). Also, he struck me as an avant-gardist who has been influenced by pianists such as Chick Corea and Keith Jarret.
His two accompanists, the lady bassist (unfortunately, I couldn’t get her name) and drummer Phelelo Mazibuko, were great and remarkable instrumentalists to listen to and watch perform. She was playing a Fender four-stringed bass, was all over the fret board playing rich single notes and simultaneously keeping time as well as soloing that, to me, seemed inspired by the late American bass genius Jaco Pastorius. Mazibuko, on the other hand, was drumming with much verve as well as maintaining a steady groove from his foot-drum, while hitting the snares, cymbals and tom-toms with a great sense of swing, in the style of Steve Gadd, and maybe that of the legendary Max Roach.
The performance by The Hazelnuts Trio brought a fantastic twist; the girls did swing with their unison vocals, adding harmonies, here and there, to a very good effect. Just to loop in the audience, they performed their jazzed-up rendition of the hip-hop-soul hit Single Lady. Their instrumentalists (all male) were equally impressive improvisers.
Lema led an oufit that featured a mix of Congolese Rhumba and Zouk, with sprinkles of jazz runs and salsa rhythms from his accompanists, who included a percussionist, saxophonist, bassist and guitarist, among others.
Indeed, Sanborn proved that he’s not the type that’s restricted in the domain of creative thought. He has played in various styles, like playing on Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book album, Michael Franks’ The Art of Tea, and numerous others, including guitarist George Benson, vocalists Chaka Khan, and the late Luther Vandross, who was his guest artist in his Backstreet album.
It was definitely a memorable event for jazz lovers in Nairobi.