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‘Celebrating the music of Bheki Mseleku’ at the Spice of Life (EFG LJF 2023)

Nick Smart, Gareth Lockrane/ Royal Academy of Music: ‘Celebrating the Music of Bheki Mseleku’
(Spice of Life. 15 November 2023 – Review by Peter Slavid)

Ensemble 1 with Ewan Parkin and Nick Smart (left) and Gareth Lockrane (second from right)
Photo credit Robert Crowley.

In the 1970s, the arrival in London of South African musicians fleeing apartheid, had a radical impact on British jazz. Led by Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath the music combined infectious rhythms, lyrical melodies and ferocious improvisation in ways that influenced a whole generation of British musicians.

Bheki Mseleku came after that first influx, arriving properly in London in the late 1980s and establishing himself into the 1990s, working with American musicians as well as British musicians such as Gareth Lockrane, Eddie Parker and Courtney Pine. His album “Celebration” was nominated for the first ever Mercury Prize.

As a pianist his style was compared to that of McCoy Tyner, and he was a big admirer of, and close to both John and Alice Coltrane. His compositions drew more from their style of jazz than from the South African Township jazz, but they still carried a joyful infectious rhythmic feel.

Garath Lockrane worked closely with Mseleku in the years before his death in 2008, playing in his groups and working with him on his compositions. Lockrane is now Head of Junior Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, and together with Nick Smart, Head of Jazz, he brought his arrangements of those compositions, and two groups of talented students to a packed out Spice of Life, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. The audience included members of Mseleku‘s family who clearly approved of the whole event.

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Ensemble 2 with Zac Schindler (centre)

Two separate Ensembles were involved with Smart and Lockrane playing in both. All the students acquitted themselves splendidly, with excellent extended solos from just about everyone. Nick Smart played some delicious flugelhorn on ballads. Lockrane’s flute, and on a couple of notable occasions his piccolo, cut thrillingly through the ensemble sounds.

The two ensembles had a slightly different feel. Ensemble 1 was a bit more dramatic, driven by a powerful rhythm section. Ensemble 2 felt a bit softer and more lyrical, partly from the softer trombone sound. Everyone got their chances to solo, and they all sounded like seasoned professionals.

In the interval Eugene Skeef, a London based South African composer, poet and activist who was an old friend and supporter of Bheki Mseleku, told some anecdotes about their time together, followed by one of his poems.

Eugene Skeef. Photo credit Robert Crowley

Lockrane’s arrangements managed to switch effortlessly between the sound of a small group and the power of a big band. The programme included some unrecorded tunes, and was bookended by two of Mseleku’s best known compositions from his album Celebration. They started with the lyrical “Joy”, and, after the second Ensemble finished, both Ensembles crammed on to the stage for a joyful rendition of “Angola” one of Mseleku’s best known tunes.

By this time the audience at the back were on their feet and dancing, and those at the front all bouncing in their seats. A splendid end to a fitting celebration of an important figure in British and world jazz.

Peter Slavid broadcasts a programme of European Jazz on and various internet stations


Ensemble 1:
Nick Smart – Trumpet
Gareth Lockrane – Flutes
Ewan Parkin: Tpt
Mali Sheard – A.Sax
Rik Van Der Made – T.Sax
Scottie Thomson -Piano
Toby Evans – Gtr
Chris Diamond – Bass
Ananda Hamond – Drums

Ensemble 2:
Nick Smart – Trumpet
Gareth Lockrane – Flutes
Donovan Haffner – A.Sax
Zac Schindler – T.Sax
Joe Evans- Tbn
Lewis James – Piano
Stan Brunt – gtr
Devon Gates- Bass & Voice
Luke Mccarthy – Drums

LINK: Interview with Gareth Lockrane about Bheki Mseleku from 2014
Sebastian’s review of a Bheki masterpiece: Beyond the Stars

3 replies »

  1. I think the review by Peter Slavid understates the level of performance of the band(s) on Wednesday night. Both ensembles were outstanding, and it was a testament to the ‘management’ by both Nick Smart and Gareth Lockrane that their young student performers delivered the quality of jazz that would credit seasoned professionals. This was one of the best gigs that I have attended in many years!

    • Ivor thanks for taking the trouble to comment and great that you really enjoyed it. I would say with due respect that you are actually in agreement with Peter, who has made exactly your point about “seasoned professionals” in his 6th paragraph, and summed up his general impression as to how good it was in his 9th paragraph!

  2. I saw Bheki at the 606 a few weeks before he died, it was wonderful. I love his music, every album brilliant. “Wake up children the sun is rising it’s a new day!” (Vukani-Timeless)

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