Written by : Michael Tonkin (@treckerdorf)
Photography by : Anton Kruger
Seated in downtown Cape Town, beneath the high stone walls of St George’s Cathedral is a place called The Crypt. The name may conjure up in your mind burial chambers from the Middle Ages and 90’s Horror films but, far from that, this place is Cape Town’s coolest new Jazz club, and it is definitely cool. Imagine vaulted ceilings painted midnight blue, dim lighting and an intimate stage with a white baby-grand piano to top it off. In one fell swoop I found myself as a character in a Dick Tracy film. The only things that were missing were the men in pin-striped suits and women in flapper dresses, all mingling in a dense haze of cigarette smoke.
The reason why I was there was to watch the Cape Town-based Mikhaela Kruger Quintet perform what would be (wait for it…) a three set show. One of the biggest challenges that a band faces is keeping the audience’s attention throughout a performance, which, on average, is made up of one set and doesn’t last much longer than an hour. So I was very interested to see what approach Mikhaela and her fellow musos would take to cajole the rowdy audience that was chatting across dinner tables.
The tone for the evening was perfectly set by the band’s first track, “Autumn Leaves”, a hauntingly beautiful song about lost love and the passing of time. Although the song has been performed by the likes of Edith Piaf and Nat King Cole, Mikhaela did not disappoint. I was struck by how soothing her voice was. With each lilt and dip I felt as if she may have known something of the sentiment behind the song. The band members, too, showed that they understood the delicacy of the song, and not a single note more was played than what was needed to compliment the voice drifting out into the crowd and causing the audience to look up and chew a little more slowly. The remainder of the first set flowed in much the same way and comprised of tender tracks that I thought suited the dinner atmosphere very nicely.
This brings me to my first criticism of the evening; not of the band but of the audience. I felt that at times many of them could have spoken a little more softly and paid a little more attention. After all, does one not go to a live venue for the music? Perhaps that’s just me being quaint.
For the last track before their first break the quintet was joined by Amy Walton, and the two singers performed a duet written by Mikhaela entitled “River Song”. It was then that I started to truly see Mikhaela’s musical direction. It was interesting to hear how modern the song sounded, at least in comparison to the songs played before, and yet it maintained its Jazz roots. And, it contained something that is not often found in songs of its genre: an edge of cynicism and anger. The two ladies’ voices blended well and they pulled off quick harmonic runs convincingly, even if at times there might have been a few imbalances and one or two false notes. On a whole, the ensemble came together nicely to end off what had been a relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable first set.
The second set started off with a little more of a bang, with more up-tempo songs. The band members also seemed to start enjoying themselves a little more. On the second number pianist Joseph Bolton pulled off a pretty burning solo, which left me wanting to hoot and cheer. What followed was in the same vein; some great solos from the other members and faster tempos enlivening the audience as mealtime came to an end.
To explain the solo thing: if you have ever listened to 70’s and 80’s rock then you would be no stranger to the guitar solo. It was that climax in the song where the dude with the long hair and too-tight pants busted out his skills that left you wanting to marry him regardless of your sexual preference. In this way some styles of Jazz and the aforementioned have a lot in common. Except that where in rock the guitar has been given preference, those styles of Jazz are not picky, and thus all are given an opportunity to show off their chops, including voice. Each song is never played the same way, so in that way even the players are spectators. It was a treat to witness the seamless give-and-take between each of the members in the quintet, as they watched the music unfold before them. I was left thinking, “These guys are serious musicians!” The line-up was as follows:
Mikhaela Kruger: Vocals
Graham Strickland: Double Bass
James McClure: Trumpet and Flugel Horn
Joseph Bolton: Piano and Tuba
Dylan Jeffreys: Drums
I had gone to the gig expecting to hear some Jazz standards played well by some very talented musicians, but I had not expected what happened in the third set. They had obviously saved the best for last. Everyone in the room was fully absorbed as they launched into a self-arrangement of “Nature Boy” that must have lasted 10 minutes. It was awesome, and for the first time in the evening the solos began to receive their well-deserved applause. Most notable were James McClure’s lightning runs on the horn.
This was followed by “Caravan”, during which Joe pulled out his Tuba and played a familiar Umpa while playing piano with his other hand; an act that caused a lot of interest in the audience and made for an amusing, if not impressive, show of musicianship. Next came Mikhaela’s arrangement of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”; a song written in the 60s and performed by Cher, and much later featured on the soundtrack for Quentin Tarentino’s Kill Bill vol. 1. It had quite a traditional start, but soon Mikhaela’s spice was added and the song went double-time, passing from “pop of the long-past” to “cross-over Jazz of the now”.
The end of the evening was signaled by a tune written by Mikhaela entitled “Dream”. It speaks of being too tired to sleep but longing for it. The song portrays Mikhala’s talent for writing music, and also provides a platform for the band to show just how tight they are. There was a section where all the members, in unison, repeated a very odd time signature phrase while drummer Dylan Jeffreys did his own thing; starting off with sparse lilting rhythms and eventually building up to intricate fills. It was exhilarating!
In the end, my concerns about how the band was going to maintain energy throughout their long show were completely unfounded. They did a sterling job as they built the evening from chilled vibes to intoxicating grooves which left me, if not anyone else, wanting more. It was late, my eyes were heavy, but I could have listened for a good deal longer.
So, if you are ever in the mood for a COOL night out, go check out the Mikhaela Kruger Quintet.