Bokani Dyer Emancipated at the Vortex

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Pick-up band’ may be one of the great pejoratives in jazz terminology, but it does not mean that a group of musicians pulled together in extremis cannot produce superlative results. This quite thrilling performance by young South African pianist-composer Bokani Dyer and his British combo is a case in point, but then again the fact that he had bandleaders and co-leaders in his ranks – drummer Seb Rochford, double bassist Neil Charles, alto saxophonist Chris Williams, tenor saxophonist Soweto Kinch – puts him at something of an advantage.

It may have passed the audience by, but, between them, the appointed sidemen have scooped Mercury nominations and also backed anybody from Beck to Speech Debelle. The high standard of musicianship and relaxed stance that comes with the experience of holding down a gig with minimal rehearsal time, as is true of tonight, can be heard in both sets. The band feels uncannily familiar with the very intricate scores.  

That said, Dyer’s music has an emotional depth and lyricism that one imagines any newcomer wanting to embrace. Over two absorbing sets that feature songs from his debut Emancipate The Story, the players grow with the audience into material which takes a widescreen view of jazz, classical and South African musical history. Looming large is the stately modalism of McCoy Tyner, with Dyer’s hypnotic left hand lines being counterweighted by a hard-working right, which impresses on lengthy, spiralling phrases.

Occasionally, Dyer’s sense of flourish takes him towards Liszt’s rhapsodic hyperactivity, but this ornate prettiness is complemented elsewhere by the sway and swirl of a township groove epitomised by legends such as the Blue Notes. While Charles and Rochford provide an entirely suitable rhythmic backbone for the material, observing the need for precision all the while keeping the beat supple, Kinch and Williams infuse long-toned themes with the requisite warmth that often crackles into a fire.

The combination of the two reeds is perhaps one of the most underrated in small group jazz, and the ability of the players to alter the character of the front line, from vocal-like close harmony to stark, eerie wide harmony, proves a key feature of the gig. Winston Mankunku and Dudu Pukwana would surely have approved. On the strength of this performance it would make great sense for Dyer to record this group the next time he’s in London. 

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Roger Thomas