Sean Bergin

March 20, 2006

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Fitfully acknowledged over the years, one of the clandestine influences on European jazz and improvised music beginning in the late 1960s was the sounds emigrating from Apartheid-era South Africa. Best-known of the players who mixed first Hard Bop, than Free Jazz with African-inflected kwela, hi life and Township Jive were members of the Blue Notes, including trumpeter Mongezi Feza, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and bassist Johnny Dyani, who escaped the conditions in their homeland and settled in London. But as that band splintered into different ensembles and the original freedom seekers were joined by other expatriates like bassist Harry Miller, the South African connection spread still further. Dyani spent a lot of time in Scandinavia, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand) set up in Switzerland and Miller had ongoing musical associations in the Netherlands.

Tenor saxophonist Sean Bergin is another expatriate South African of a slightly younger generation, who eventually chose to settle in Amsterdam rather than London and over the years has worked with many of Holland’s more advanced players, as well as the Trio San Francisco with fellow tenor men Toby Delius from the United Kingdom and Daniele D’Arago from Italy. Always a powerful, blues-influenced player, for Nansika he’s organized a quintet to celebrate music by South African composers such as Dyani, Feza, Ibrahim and Pukwana. One of the first – if not the first – CD to play these tunes without any of the composers present, the polyglot results are soulful, emotional and just plains remarkable.

Part of the reason for Nansika’s success rests with the musicians on the date, the majority of whom, like Bergin are expatriates, though no other is an African. While bassist Jacko Schoonderwoerd and drummer Victor de Boo make up the powerful all-Dutch rhythm section, guitarist Franky Douglas is originally from Surinam, with its mixture of Indian, Indonesian and Dutch culture and in the Netherlands has played ethnic music and funk as well as jazz. Meanwhile pianist Curtis Clark, a full-fledged jazzman, was raised in Los Angeles and has recorded with fellow Californians such as reedist David Murray and cornetist Butch Morris.

When first hearing this music, its strong blues base and connection to African-American sounds become apparent. But since this is improvised, not ethno-tribal music, one suspects that some of these inflections arise from the jazz experience of the players. What’s more, Bergin, whose earliest jazz experiences were at an almost illegal mixed-race club in Durban, followed by an apprenticeship in blues and soul bands in Cape Town, helps steer the tunes closer to jazz. Nonetheless, a close listen to the South African themes reveals a profoundly un-American sense of structure and the sort of a lilting romanticism that has been missing from serious modern jazz and improv since about the mid-1950s. Linked to a different ethos, however, compositions such as Dyani’s “Wish You Sunshine” and Ibrahim’s “The Wedding” almost demand the players vest the performance with gentling impressionism.

Be cognizant of the fact that its romanticism not smoothness being celebrated. For when Bergin caresses note patterns, it’s in a fashion similar to how Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins would have approached a balladic line, not Grover Washington. Simultaneously, his curvaceous, low-key melodies are enhanced with multiphonics, tongue stopping and double tongued extensions. Vibrating and snorting when recasting a slow-paced theme, he’s aided by passionate voicing from Clark, that roam from Errol Garner-styled keyboard blocking to more understated, Wynton Kelley-like key dusting.

At points on these and other numbers, Douglas’ twangy chording and finger-style fills are as reminiscent of a Nashville studio guitarist’s licks as they are to jazz chording. Yet this Country music-styled mixture of sentiment and power locks in perfectly with the temperate African melodies. In truth however, Nashville instrumentalist like pianist Floyd Cramer and guitarist Chet Atkins wouldn’t have felt very comfortable with the Booker-T-goes-to-Jo’burg funky cross timbres of Pukwana’s “Ezilalini”, especially at those points when Bergin’s horn screams in false registers and with its irregular pitch vibrations.

A closer parallel to what’s unrolling here are the near-Calypso excursions of Sonny Rollins. Mostly the kwela overtones are treated the way the older tenor saxophonist used his source material. Testifying gospel music call-and-response and a touch of contrapuntal bottleneck guitar – as well as the improv concept – also blunts too direct ethnic connections. Clark assembles tremolo solos of high-frequency, nearly effortless swing and Bergin’s contribution encompasses glottal punctuation and reed-biting, plus small blocks of notes connected with double tongued phrases – without every losing track of the themes.

Another highlight of the disc is the arc of buzzed Aylerian trills and altissimo squeals he adds to a stop-time section on “Yakal Inkomo,” composed by the little-known Winston Ingozi. On top of Clark’s careful, near organic comping, Bergin winnows his Energy Music excesses to a theme recapitulation and a solo extro that acknowledges Missouri-born Hawkins as much as any South African native, Throughout Schoonderwoerd provides the front line with a stable rhythmic pulse, while de Boo confines himself to steady accompaniment, only rarely departing from a tough backbeat to decorate the pieces with rim shots and press rolls. If there are any minor drawbacks to Nansika, it’s the few times when the club atmosphere encourages a few too many round-robin solos. Other than that, it’s hard to imagine a better introduction to the wide scope of South African Jazz themes or this top-flight band.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing; 1. Woza Mtwana 2.  Nansika 3. Ezilalini 4. You Ain’t Gonna Know Me 5. Yakal Inkomo 6. The Wedding 7. Ubagele 8. Wish You Sunshine

Personnel:  Sean Bergin (tenor saxophone); Franky Douglas (amplified acoustic guitar); Curtis Clark (piano); Jacko Schoonderwoerd (bass) and Victor de Boo (drums)