It’s not often appreciated that the development of jazz in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, though influenced by imported models, had its provenance in repression and apartheid, just like its original forebear in the southern states of America. The only difference in the segregation was that the South Africa brand of it was government policy. Many black South African jazz musicians migrated north, too, and for scarcely different reasons. Whether the result of government or state edict, there was a hostile environment which both were escaping. White ones also, such as Chris McGregor, ended up in Europe, in his case having first helped establish a “Cape Jazz” style after studying with the composer Stanley Glasser, who himself had studied music in Cambridge.
Adam Glasser, Stanley’s son, is now London-based after circuitous family travels, his main instrument the chromatic harmonica and sometimes its more rudimentary “Melody Star” version. His background therefore has as its context the wider framework of South African jazz, examples of which he includes in his club appearances. This one, at Black Mountain Jazz’s Melville Community Centre, was typical.
In a familiar scenario for a club date, Glasser arrived as a guest with an imported band that on the night hadn’t travelled that far – the John Paul Gard organ trio – and with whom he had never played before. It didn’t show much. Tete Mbambisa’s “Stay Cool” and Victor Ndlazilwana’s “Zandile” found him insisting at the outset at least on a rocking Township rhythm which drummer Billy Weir took to immediately and Gard and guitarist Matt Hopkins picked up and emphasised with intelligence and taste. (Ndlazilwana’s band, The Jazz Ministers, appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1976.)
It didn’t result in the sustained, celebratory verve one associates with this kind of music – there was also a perfunctory nod to the SA roots at the start of Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned” – but perhaps the intention was to show how effective it was as a style when grafted to formal jazz presentation. The rest consisted of standards, on which such formality was a given. They included Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean”, which featured on Glasser’s 2010 album Free at First with other musicians. Here Weir picked up a bossa feel in the way the tune was being developed, the whole concept turning out to be one of the evening’s highlights, incorporating a lingering Glasser intro.
The harmonica in jazz is redolent of both early blues music and later (and more-sophisticated) post-bop/swing figurations in the style of Toots Thielemans. Both traditions evoked simultaneously gave Glasser’s dazzling inventiveness its appeal and historical reach at whatever tempo, be it on Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology” or Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia”.
That simpler harmonica was employed to introduce Richard Rodgers’s “My Romance” before the switch to the chromatic’s richer versatility and the inclusion of a considerable Hopkins solo. Glasser made no mention of Thielemans until the start of the second half, when the Belgian’s “Bluesette” was played as a sort of homage, though it functioned also as a worthy addition to the standards book, along with the Juan Tizol/Duke Ellington number “Caravan”.
Before Wes Montgomery’s “Four on Six”, Glasser paid Hopkins the ultimate compliment of saying Montgomery would have been impressed by him, after which the West Country guitarist proceeded to be his own man and not, for the occasion, a Montgomery simulacrum.
The Daniel Flores chart “Tequila” was introduced with an extended intro of Miles Davis’s “Miles”, which gave everyone a breezy outride, not least for Gard, who had provided weight and depth throughout, particularly in foot-flying over the necessary bass lines, and Weir, whose purpose and delicacy at the kit regularly impressed.