Sipho Mabaso - Business Day


On his debut album, his delivery on both the soprano and tenor saxophones is technically clinical, creatively self-assured, inventively engaging and downright bold. He blows the sax to high, overlapping crescendos, while retaining control. The resulting sound commands your attention, a feat for most musical genres, but especially so for jazz......Read More

  • Gwen Ansell - Business Day


  • Mnisi played with the fluency and craft that have become his hallmark — and with that distinctive soul feel that tells any listener where his music was shaped: in the 1980s. For although Mnisi was born in 1960, he worked as a fitter and also dabbled in pro football before he began music lessons aged 28. He studied at Fuba and later at the then Pretoria Technikon......Read More

 

  • Sipho Mabaso - Business Day
  • WHAT does it mean to wait 20 years from when you first took up an instrument at music school to release your debut album?

    Does it mean, like a certain liquor brand, that you are slow brewed and extra matured?

    Simply, it means you are Sydney Ace Mnisi. His middle name is not a soccer nickname, though he did play in the old National Professional Soccer League’s second division for Tembisa Golden Eagles.

    In the ’80s, violence engulfed South African soccer with the advent of the National Soccer League. Mnisi then decided to follow his calling as a jazz musician.

    A soprano and tenor saxophonist, he started his music lessons at the Fuba music academy in Johannesburg in 1988 at the age of 28, after leaving his job as a fitter and turner at a metal company.

    He began his career by touring the world with some of the best musicians in SA, including Abdullah Ibrahim, Bheki Mseleku, Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela, Sibongile Khumalo, Allen Kwela and Caiphus Semenya.

    This month he released his breakout CD, 20 Years Celebration. Mnisi gives two reasons for his long walk to his debut album.

    “About not recording for so long, there are two issues,” he says. “First, the instrument is so difficult that the more I got deeper into it the more I thought I did not know enough. Secondly, in music, any music, there are many different systems involved, which demand of you to know whether you are dealing, for instance, with a 1,3,2,5,1 or a 1,4,5 system, which is the system on which South African music is based.

    “I had to understand the systems before recording. I am still learning the instrument. I read music. I have books and books. I practise for at least two or three hours, up to eight hours a day. But I need 10 lifetimes to master this instrument.”

    On his debut album, his delivery on both the soprano and tenor saxophones is technically clinical, creatively self-assured, inventively engaging and downright bold. He blows the sax to high, overlapping crescendos, while retaining control. The resulting sound commands your attention, a feat for most musical genres, but especially so for jazz.

    The tenor sax does defeat him at times. But on the soprano sax, there is no high note he cannot reach, then hold steady and elevate even higher. He does this on the seventh track, Afro.

    “Afro is a statement about the fact that we need to formulate one continental currency for Africa,” he says. All the songs on the album are composed, produced and published by Mnisi through his company, Mvuleni Publishing (named after his clan name). He says there is a story behind every song title in the nine-track, self- financed album, for which he had to “get a loan from the bank”. He wanted to own all his music.

    The title, It’s About Time, reflects the fact that he felt he had “waited for too long after a long time in the business and it was about time” he released his own CD. The track Kwela Gontsana is a requiem for two departed musicians, guitarist Allen Kwela and drummer Lulu Gontsana. Global Village reflects his belief that “we are part of a global village and are not Africans by virtue of our race”, but our place of origin.

    He titled one track Blues Tembisa because, hailing from and living there, “I’ve got the blues. The conditions under which people live are appalling, the non-delivery of services. My house is opposite a tavern. It’s noisy, but I don’t have enough money to ship out of the township.”

    But the most bizarre of Mnisi’s track nomenclature is Grooving in Hell. “We’ve all been brainwashed about heaven being the place,” he says. “Probably all the guys we admired (for Mnisi, US master jazz saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon) are all grooving in hell, where there are bitches, there’s a bar with drinks, there’s jazz.

    “I am not an Antichrist, but I know it’s a thorny statement. We’ve been questioning our cultural values, but we’ve never questioned hell. Probably the hell that we don’t know of is the place to be.Heaven is cold. There is no fire. People are singing the same old tunes. It’s boring there.”

    Mnisi says his music is “difficult” to play: “It moves in different keys. As a musician, you should know all 12 keys.”

    His accompanists on the album are pianist Andile Yenana (whose solo on Blues Tembisa is jazz perfection), bassist Jimmy Mngwandi, drummer Clement Benny and percussionist Basi Mahlasela.

    Despite his reputation for jazz purism, there are clear traces of fusion and funk in his debut album. “I’ve tried to be inclusive. That’s how jazz musicians are writing nowadays,” he says.

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  • Gwen Ansell - Business Day

I WAS there when the Jo’burg jazz world first woke up to saxophonist Sydney Mnisi. It was a Monday night jam session at Sof’town in the early 1990s: a space where you might hear players from banal to brilliant. A studious-looking, slightly older, tenor player had been loitering unobtrusively at the side of the stage all night. Few of us knew who he was. Finally, he stepped forward and blew. Voices stilled and glasses and plates stopped clattering. The club went quiet as everybody listened. When he finished — exhorted by whoops and hollers to way more choruses than he had intended — organiser Jim Harris shook his head. “That brother,” he observed, “has a voice.”

It was much the same on Tuesday night at Barringtons in Killarney — except this time everybody knows who Mnisi is, and now there’s an album, Twenty Years Celebration, just released to confirm it.

Mnisi played with the fluency and craft that have become his hallmark — and with that distinctive soul feel that tells any listener where his music was shaped: in the 1980s. For although Mnisi was born in 1960, he worked as a fitter and also dabbled in pro football before he began music lessons aged 28. He studied at Fuba and later at the then Pretoria Technikon.

His career stretched from serving as a sideman with veterans such as Jonas Gwangwa and in the late Dennis Mpale’s Return to creative teamwork on newer musical visions: with Carlo Mombelli, Feya Faku, Louis Mhlanga here, and in a fertile team-up with Paul van Kemenade in the Netherlands. The legacy of that, when Mnisi returned, was a perceptible physical freeing. The reedman who blew at Sof’town stood ramrod straight; these days, there’s kinetic energy in his stance.

Mnisi’s longest musical relationship is probably with Voice, a band dedicated to keeping fresh the legacy of South African hard bop. We heard that on Tuesday, in technically masterful playing that was never clinical. (Pianist Horace Silver described hard bop as a revolt against the “feeling that it was kinda demeaning to be funky”.)

Mnisi never solos simply to display speed or dexterity, though he has both in abundance. The music — a big, warm sound on both tenor and soprano — comes, unmistakably, from his heart. And so he has the rare skill of writing genuinely moving ballads: Ida, for example, from the second Voice album, and the tribute Kwela Gontsana on this one.

His album partners — pianist Andile Yenana, bassist Jimmy Mngwandi and drummer Clement Benny — soloed in the same spirit. Benny on Its About Time demonstrated how the tune is not merely a sigh of relief at finally releasing an album, but also about time — rhythm — in its construction. And on Grooving in Hell — an allusion to the venerable musicians’ joke that after death all the best players will be found gathered round the bar in the hot place — Yenana stretched out to channel the spirit of Silver through his own, highly individual pianism.

Mnisi’s warmth means Sonny Rollins fans will discover much to admire in his album. Tracks such as the instantly catchy Courtyard, whose feel flirts with calypso, underline that resonance. But he can also be tough: swooping and spiraling his soprano into unexpected changes on speedy abstract runs — and make oldsters nostalgic with a classic, dance-band tenor sound.

Sometimes, on the stand, Mnisi will craft a wicked, witty solo that patchworks quotes from the entire bop canon into his own distinctive narrative. The brother still has a voice.

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