A lot of room for improvisation

An interview with South African jazz bassist Shane Cooper.

Shane Cooper (Photo: Jonx Pillemer).

The best interview subjects often-times turn out to not only possess an affable personality, but also tend to express vast, in-depth knowledge in whatever the topic under discussion may be. Cape Town-based bassist Shane Cooper is one such character. A mainstay in bands like Babu as well as the Kyle Shepherd trio, Shane also doubles as an electronic music producer, cooking up warped left-field beats with the dexterity of a digital marksman under his alter-ego, Card On Spokes. He speaks as excitedly about Charles Mingus’s compositional genius as he does about, say, Sibot’s amazing live show. “Sibot’s set leaves a lot of room for improvisation, which I really admire. He’s seriously playing a lot of those beats live,” Cooper says. Recently, Cooper got awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in the jazz category. The awards, now in their twenty-ninth year running, are not without their critics. We decided to pick Shane’s brain on South African jazz in particular, and the jazz world in general.

Who is the one bassist you look up to in jazz?

There’s a whole bunch of different things. Mingus is a huge influence, especially compositionally. Pattitucci, Ray Brown for some old school stuff and Ron Carter as well for the real traditional playing, and then the way Ron Carter took it to new things with Miles. There’s a whole host of guys. I guess I look to different cats for different things, so there’s some guys I’ll look to just for the way they play the blues, and I’ll look to another guy for the way they play more odd time signature stuff. Look at Derrick Hodge who plays with Robert Glasper, and the way he plays hip-hop, but hip-hop in a jazz band … he’s bad-ass, his sound and choice of notes and stuff. It’s amazing, he hits the nail on the head! It’s the same kind of thing I get from Pino Palladino who played on D’angelo’s “Voodoo” album; it’s just the perfect placement of notes for hip-hop stuff. And just jazz guys in general, a whole bunch of different composers and new guys that I like. A lot of the inspiration for the new guys comes from the old guys as well.

You’re from Port Elizabeth, which is in the Eastern Cape. The Eastern Cape has a whole lineage of amazing jazz cats. Were you familiar with the scene when you were coming up?

Yes, I was. There were a lot of guys that I discovered only later they originally come from PE and the Eastern Cape at large. But when I was coming up I was playing with a guy named Gerard O’Brien who’s originally from The Genuines, an old Ghoema punk band from the eighties (with Hilton Schilder and Mac McKenzie). I played with him and this guy named Graham Beyer when I was sixteen, in bars and clubs around PE. I really cut my teeth with those guys, that’s when I started learning a lot more about how to really play in a jazz group. We connected with guys; there was a small scene there but there were a lot of guys who were passionate about it. But many of the jazz musicians have moved to other cities. It was a cool place to grow up, but creatively there’s a very limited bunch of venues you can play at.

So why did you move to Cape Town?

Well I wanted to study jazz, and I was looking at different universities. The Cape Town one (SACM) looked like a good option. And then I had a couple of mates here that I’d met that said I should come by and we can work on some stuff. It kinda seemed like the obvious choice, and I’d always really liked the whole scene here, everything that I’d heard coming out of Cape Town in jazz, electronic music and everything was cool. So I was pretty easily swayed.

How does the relationship between musicians work in the collaborative projects that you have been involved in, like Babu and the Kyle Shepherd trio for instance?

Kyle’s group is a good example of something where Kyle is the composer and the leader and the vision of the group, it’s his whole concept. And he came and basically contacted Jonno (Sweetman, drums) and myself. I can’t remember exactly when we started playing together. When someone invites you to come and play their music, it’s not a definite that anything’s gonna happen. It might just sound okay, and then you do one or two shows and it kinda ends there. The first couple of shows are really the test to see if there’s chemistry. We played, and I feel like we had a definite chemistry from the get-go, and it developed into a really good working relationship over several years, and Jonno and I have a really good core connection as bass and drums, which is really important. You can have a good bass player and a good drummer who don’t connect, and then the whole thing falls apart. Jonno and I really work well together; I think Kyle felt that from the beginning, that this thing is working and we had a connection. That’s really the main thing, and then the rest is all the work that Kyle has put into the project, and bringing us into his space, then us rehearsing and working on the stuff. But fortunately we had a natural musical connection from the beginning. And then a lot to it is also, I think, liking similar things and different things. There’s a lot of stuff that we listen to together to get inspiration; when we’re on the road together we’ll watch DVDs, stuff of bands that we dig. At the same time there’s stuff that I listen to that the other guys don’t like, and vice versa. But that also informs my playing and brings out something that they can connect with vicariously.

How are the experiences while on tour?

It’s cool. One of my favorite parts of playing music is getting to travel. You experience the different scenes; every place has a different way of working. So you see how the audiences listen to music, the way the venue’s run, and even the way things work behind the scenes — the way the engineers operate. It’s just really cool to experience it because the music scene at large is all connected, but at the same time it works so differently in every place. I love it! If you connect with the audience anywhere in the world, it’s a great thing. Meeting musicians elsewhere is really cool, you realise that the world is kind of small. The cool thing in the jazz world is that it’s not as affected by the ‘celebrity thing’ as it is in a lot of other genres. You can meet big names — I mean, some of them are untouchable — but you can meet big names and they’re often very cool. You just hang with them and chat about whatever, it’s not such a mission. It’s amazing to be on a train in some other country and you look out and you’re like ‘oh my god, I’m here for music!’

How has a place like The Mahogany Room helped you out as a musician living and working in Cape Town?

Well, it’s the only dedicated jazz venue in Cape Town, the Monday night jazz jam is just on Mondays. Tagore’s is also the other one, but they both cater for a different kind of feeling — the Mahogany is a sitting concert venue and Tagore’s is more of a bar space where people talk and chat during a gig. I like both for different reasons, but there’s a lot of music that needs to be performed in a listening space because you need to be able to hear everything that’s going on. It’s imperative for the future of music to have a venue like Mahogany Room so that artists have a place to play their stuff, or they would really struggle. Before the Mahogany Room, you could maybe hire out a space, but if you had a band with a piano in, it’s very hard to find a spot with a piano, and hiring something big like a place at the Baxter or Artscape is beyond any of our budgets, so you have to look at universities and schools. But that’s also difficult because those places don’t have traffic for concerts all the time; you have to market really hard, and it’s difficult. So the Mahogany Room, ja, it’s a go-to place, people know that they’re gonna go and get a concert. It’s also important that a lot of new people … there are a lot of young people who don’t necessarily go to concerts like that because they haven’t been exposed to it. I love going to see a gig where I can just sit and be quiet and listen to the entire show. And then I also like going to a bar where it’s a pumping vibe and people are dancing, singing along and going crazy. They’re both really important for the scene. For a while it was just the one side. It’s something that a small, up-and-coming jazz band can actually do without having to worry about hiring a theatre with lighting engineers and sound engineers. And it’s small and intimate as well; if you’re sitting right at the back of the room you can hear what’s going on. I certainly think it’s an encouragement to people because they now know that they’ve got a space like that, so they’re like ‘okay, well, if I write something that is fitting for a room like that, I should do it.’ So there’s been a big step in the right direction.

And how is working with Babu?

That’s been great! I don’t know if you’ve heard though, we broke up last week.

Didn’t you guys just play two shows recently?

Yeah, we played two shows and we split up after the second show. It’s a sad thing because we’ve been together for seven years, but it’s the end of that long journey.

But will you still be working with the rest of the other band members on other projects?

Yeah, Kesivan — I play in his group (The Lights); and I play in Reza’s group, his quartet stuff. We’ll still all work together, but just Babu itself has disbanded. There’s no hard feelings. We’re all still really good friends, there’s no weird vibe or anything like that.

So you got awarded the Standard Band Young Artist Award for 2013 in the jazz category. Where were you when you received the news?

I was in studio working on some mixes, and they called me up. It was a big surprise, I didn’t expect it. It was pretty weird as well because I was in the studio and they were like “don’t tell anyone yet until it’s announced,” so I had to be quiet. I was really stunned by it, I didn’t expect that call at all! It was a huge honor to get it.

Has it changed anything? For instance, are you getting more bookings than previously?

What it really comes down to is that they’ve given me some shows at the Grahamstown Festival. I’ve been writing music for several years, jazz music that I’ve performed in different groups, and I’ve been waiting to put together my own group under my own name. But I’ve never got to it yet because I’ve been really focused on the collaborations that I’ve been in, stuff like Babu. I was in this band Restless Natives for several years, Closet Snare and stuff. So a lot of my writing energy and efforts in the jazz world were focused on those collaborations. It was always something at the back of my mind: okay, soon I’m gonna put together my own group. And then they gave me that award and were like “we’ve got some shows for you in Grahamstown.” So we’re recording a record at the end of April, it’s got Kesivan (Naidoo, drums), Reza (Khota, guitar), Bokani Dyer on piano, and Justin Bellairs on alto saxophone. And then I’m gonna do two collaborative shows at Grahamstown with some international guys (from Europe) as well. So that’s the main thing, they give you a showcase there. It will amount to some more shows that come up over the year with my band hopefully.

Don’t you feel that the award might turn into a curse at some point? That it will stunt your growth in some way?

So far I haven’t found that. There’s been no restriction put on me creatively whatsoever, there are no clashes with me asking to be able to do something with my group that they’ve gone “it doesn’t fit the profile.” There’s nothing like that. I’ve had complete creative freedom, so I haven’t experienced that. I honestly think there should be more corporates doing stuff like this for the jazz world. There are millions spent on sport, and I understand that they get way more advertising time from it, but there should be way more companies investing in jazz in this country. Because it’s a big thing, there are a lot of kids that are into jazz in school, you know?! It’s not a side-line thing. I know that thousands of kids around the country are really into jazz, I see them at Grahamstown every year and all around the country when I go to play places. If there were more corporates investing in jazz, I think it would just help the scene a lot more. There’s the FMR competition which is a good thing as well, and the SAMRO Contest, and those are two really good initiatives. But we need way more. Not just jazz, other stuff as well; arts in general. There should be more tax incentives for this sort of thing as well, for companies to invest in the arts.

Kyle Shepherd mentioned in an interview that part of the reason he dropped out of university was that he felt they were not teaching him what he needed to know. Do you feel that there’s an awareness, at least now with the cats that are coming up, of South African jazz?

I think there is, I think there’s been an increase, definitely in the last few years. While I was there (in university), there were a few cats; there was a guy named Mongezi (piano player), M’du (piano player), Bokani and Kyle, they were all checking out that stuff, checking out Bheki, checking out Moses. But there’s been a definite increase and even more guys, it’s been really cool to see. I’ve heard that they’re trying to make a better South African jazz course, but while I was there, they spent almost no time on it, which was sad. There was no love given to that part of it. Because the artists who’ve come from this country have really done very unique things in the jazz world. It should be more important to us.

Further Reading