Some kind of personal comfort

Kyle Shepherd’s new music blooms brightly from out of the shadow of pandemic and considers what it means to be South African, African, and human.

Of all the things we’ve lost in the COVID-19 pandemic, spontaneity is perhaps the easiest to overlook. Compared to loss of life, of income, health or home, the freedom to engage with life on an impromptu basis seems almost frivolous. And yet that is where so many of life’s small joys are found, and when the spur of the moment lies dulled and blunted from underuse, we yearn for the sharpening whetstone of free impulse.

With After The Night, The Day Will Surely Come, South African jazz pianist and composer Kyle Shepherd has wrought an antidote to despair, and a contemplation of hope, and the album sprung from a moment of desperate, defiant spontaneity in the depths of lockdown. “I just sat down and played,” says Shepherd.

“I went into the studio without much of a plan, but I wanted to play more as some kind of personal comfort. Just to play that music again, and to really feel the beauty of an acoustic grand piano. I was unsure as to whether it would be released or not, but I thought let me do some playing.”

Just sitting down and playing is something that Shepherd has not done much of over the five years since he last released a jazz album. While he had continued to tour and play shows occasionally in the interim, much of Shepherd’s time was taken up with a side gig that quickly developed into a second career: scoring for film and television.

Having taught himself the art from scratch, Shepherd contributed an award-winning score to the film Noem My Skollie in 2016. He followed that up with work on the feature film, Fiela Se Kind, which also won Best Original Score at the Silwerskerm Film Festival. More scoring work followed, including the film Barakat, directed by Amy Jephta, action thriller Indemnity, and the second season of the popular Netflix series Blood and Water.

In other words, he’s been busy—too busy to devote much time to his first passion: jazz piano. “Working 10 to 12 hours a day on a film or Netflix series or whatever, as I’m doing now and have been doing for almost five years at least, I just had no time, unfortunately, to play the instrument in that context,” Shepherd says.

“Contrary to my work in the film world, where you spend three months on something, I wanted to not spend that kind of time on trying to perfect a production. I wanted to get back to the rawness of improvising in the moment, of taking the leap off the cliff so to speak, and I wanted to just play. I played in a long form, an hour and a bit without stopping. A few months later, I listened to the recording and I thought ok, this is something we can work with. And that was it, to be honest.”

What flowed during that hour-and-a-bit is a remarkable aural odyssey articulating the journey of the human spirit and all that that entails: pain, grief, loss, memory, hope, joy, connection, love. Improvisation and recital here become a cipher that shines prismatic, somehow combining these contradictory emotions and impulses into something that is all these things, and yet is indivisible, showcasing a delicate, gestalt beauty. This album blooms brightly from the shadows of pandemic and tragedy and considers what it means to be South African, African, human, here and now.

This is a solo work, and it does indeed provide a singular and utterly original vision, but one that knows where it’s from, that is grounded in material reality, is begat by South Africa’s history, and finds in that history not a stifling weight, but a deep well. The warp and weft of a musical heredity is weaved into something that is honest and profound, and alive in the moment. The wellspring of spontaneous inspiration cannot but be sincere. It is the inside, unfiltered.

As Percy Mabhandu notes in his liner notes, this is “alert, alive pianism. Shepherd crafts a base of superbly controlled chordal underpinnings to every bit of sweet lilting lyricism in laments and levities, or a faintly echoed call of the adhan; the staccato of the incantatory Xhosa, or the faded /Xam-ka tongues and modern Cape Malay street scamto.”

The themes of this album are universal, yet it is unmistakably South African. It marks yet another chapter in the role that jazz has played in the national narrative. “I read a quote from Herbie Hancock just the other day,” Shepherd explains, “and he said that jazz is a great example of democracy in action. When musicians come together to play jazz, everybody has an equal opportunity on the bandstand to express him or herself. When one musician takes a solo, the rest of the band is performing, but they’re also expressing themselves as they support him, then he concludes his solo, and it switches to the pianist or the saxophone player, and the same process happens. And that’s a wonderful example of, as we call it in South Africa, this idea of Ubuntu, right there on the bandstand.”

“I’ve always enjoyed situations where musicians can come together and completely be on equal ground in terms of your self expression. And I love that about the music and I think that it sets this music called jazz apart in that way and it makes it very advanced, because it’s very difficult to play in that way. It requires each musician to firstly be absolutely committed to what they are doing and secondly also completely committed to listening to what everyone else is doing all the time. So the relevance to, especially our society, and showing that as an example is very important, because that’s the cornerstone of who we are, or at least what we’re trying to be, post ‘94.”

The album opens with a poignant, improvised tribute to Keith Jarrett, the legendary jazz pianist and composer who suffered a series of strokes in 2018 that robbed him of the ability to play his instrument: reading the news about Jarrett “actually kind of broke my heart,” Shepherd says. The album also includes the song Sweet Zim Suite, composed in honor of saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, who was a mentor and friend to Shepherd before his death in 2011.

Indeed, grief looms large here, but hope larger, particularly through the second half of a longform recital that is almost cinematic in scope, as if there has been some osmosis between the two halves of Shepherd’s artistic impulses: freeform jazz and structured film score. The whole thing culminates in a remarkable rendition of the song “Zikr” (alluding to one of the central devotional acts of Sufism) that achieves a miraculous feat of transubstantiation, turning a piano into a kora and sculpting sound in a way that is truly surprising.

To belabor the fact that the album contains no new compositions would be to miss the point, for it is precisely the way in which known and loved songs are reshaped and stitched together that gives this album emotive power. The curious thing is that, while the final form displays a coherent narrative arc, its inception was entirely spontaneous.

“I’m very open in saying that I had not planned this album at all,” says Shepherd. “All of these things were happening in the moment. I felt there was an opportunity to find something new in that music. In fact, I feel that it’s the mandate of the music, and it puts it on the musician to explore these compositions in a new way every time you play them. I was just kind of submitting to how it was happening.”

This is Shepherd’s seventh album, and his first to be pressed on vinyl by South African label Mastuli Music, something that is “very important” to him. Indeed, the vinyl form is apt here. This album, on vinyl, is a beautiful object containing within itself beautiful sounds.

“I think there’s something to be said for the package of a vinyl also being a work of art, from the cover to the writing to the act of putting the vinyl onto a record player,” says Shepherd. “There’s just something about pulling out a vinyl and sitting down with it, looking at it, holding it in your hands. That’s a process that we don’t quite find the time for anymore, just to sit down and listen to some music.”

Jazz is not music that is meant to be overly intellectualized. It is meant to be felt. After The Night, The Day Will Surely Come should be listened to as one listens to the deep roll and crash of the Atlantic or the South Easter whistling through the trees, as one hears the muezzin, the defiant songs of city birds rising over traffic, the laughter of children. So, stop what you’re doing, and allow the spontaneous moment in. Log off. Shut that browser. Close your eyes. Listen. Feel.

Kyle Shepherd’s After The Night, The Day Will Surely Come is available from Matsuli Music here.

Further Reading