Our Favorite Album of 2013
Ngoan'a Nts'oana | December 30th, 2013


I’ve had Shane Cooper’s “Oscillations” in my possession for the past four months. From the onset, it was clear that it wasn’t music I’d be content with listening passively to. It was necessary for me to live with it; to let it disturb me and put me in a state of unrest. This I did because the magnitude of the compositions demanded it of me; they weren’t easy melodic passages but complex and layered meditations on jazz and its many forms. Who was I to not oblige?

As last year’s Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for Jazz, an honor which has been bestowed to regular collaborator Kyle Shepherd for the forthcoming year, Shane Cooper had the financial backing to record and release compositions which, as he noted in our interview earlier this year, had been laying around for over three years. When we had a chat again recently prior the release of “Oscillations,” Cooper pointed out that there were only two ‘old’ songs on the album–material he’d been playing in the many band formations he’s active in.

So instead of sharing the countless stream-of-consciousness notes I wrote while spending time with “Oscillations,” I thought it best to share bits of what Cooper revealed about some of the songs on the album. It is, by any stretch of the imagination, an excellent project. Carlo Mombelli, that scientist and experimental frontier-leader who brought us “Prisoners of Strange,” oversaw production duties. This is the very same man responsible for Cooper’s instrument of choice. In fact, as Cooper himself revealed, Mombelli is the reason why he chose to pursue music.

Below are some ruminations, courtesy of Shane Cooper, about some songs on the album. The personnel, which includes two past recipients of the Standard Bank nod, speaks volumes of the calibre of musicians Cooper is associated with: Bokani Dyer (piano, rhodes, electric organ); Kesivan Naidoo (drums, cymbals, cowbells); Reza Khota (guitar); Justin Bellairs (alto saxophone); and Buddy Wells (Tenor saxophone).

Broken Blues: I co-wrote that song with Reza [Kota, guitarist]. I started with the bassline and then took it to him, and we developed the melody together.

Destination unknown: I wrote a lot of that on the piano.

Dead Letters: I wrote it on an old analog synthesizer. I just came up with this melody that evolves; it’s based on a very simple theme, but it evolves and moves through different chords.

Shadowplay: I wrote it on an electric bass. I changed the tuning of the bass. I downtuned some of the strings and tried to write a structure on the bass without thinking  about the theory of it. I didn’t know what the chord would be, so I moved my hands around and just found a whole bunch of chord sequences that made sense to me sonically. And then I wrote the melody for that. That was putting myself in a place where I didn’t think about theory or common chord sequences. Funnily enough, when you look at it the chord sequences are quite common, but I wouldn’t have probably come up with them if I didn’t tune the bass like that.

Drop Down Deconstruct: I wrote that on the guitar. I had different songs sketched out. I went back and looked at a whole bunch of things and chose a melody from one, another melody from the other, and tried to combine them. That didn’t work, so I replaced one with another, basically combining all these melodies. If you listen to Drop Down, there are a bunch of different sections. It’s like a drop-down menu. I cut and pasted a whole bunch of ideas that seemed to work together somehow without that being the original intention.

Cooper says that the process of composing varies. He’ll usually sit on an instrument and have a jam session until something sticks out, then record the interesting bits onto his computer or mobile phone–whichever is most convenient at that moment. He often composes on instruments he’s not very good at. “It breaks me out of my comfort zone and makes me think of different patterns,” he says in conclusion.

Shane Cooper’s album “Oscillations” is out on iTunes.

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Ngoan'a Nts'oana

A writer first and foremost. Interested in documenting people's lives and sparking a conversation using words

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