Music Interview: Neil Gonsalves – Blessings And Blues, Or Ritualistic Roots

June 21, 2021

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Durban-based composer, pianist and educator Neil Gonsalves recently released his new record, Blessings And Blues. The album was recorded in December 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, and in a year during which Gonsalves turned 50. It’s a celebratory album, a colourful depiction of a slice of South African life, at least as it was then. Given the ensuing pandemic, the album now serves as a reminder and beacon of hope for a more engaged and fulfilled life. The recording features bassist Ildo Nandja, now resident in the Netherlands, and young drum virtuoso Riley Giandhari.


“Influence” is a loaded, often misunderstood concept. An artist may sound similar to another but have no knowledge of them, or be a super-fan of someone whose output is completely different to their own. Who or what was the artist, album, song, era or scene that initially mapped out the road to you becoming a musician?

It was the Durban jazz scene in the late Eighties and early Nineties that was a seminal influence in my early musical life. I had auditioned successfully for the jazz programme at Natal University knowing only that the European Art stream was not for me. But I was vastly underprepared. I had never played jazz before, never played the piano before, or played in a band before. But Prof Darius Brubeck, who had auditioned me, and who was the Head of the programme must have seen some potential. I probably learned more in that first year of study than any other other in my life. I practiced eight hours a day and made considerable use of the amazing collection of jazz records in the music library. I had fantastic teachers and was lucky to be surrounded by fellow students who were much better musicians than I was. Feya Faku, Lex Futshane, Mfana Mlambo, Sazi Dlamini,, Zim Ngqawana, Johnny Mekoa, Lulu Gontsana – they were all students at the time. They helped catch me up big time and they all had active bands in which they played original compositions as well as American and South African jazz. It was a really vibrant scene, both on campus and off, and it set the example that I’ve followed ever since.


Has that changed over the years? If so, how and why, and what are you currently exploring?

The music scene has changed, not only in Durban but across the globe. There are very few jazz bands around and even fewer venues. Even live music has to exist in a digital space now. Hard format sales seem like a thing of the past, streaming brings in negligible income and COVID has now put paid to live performances and touring. A career in music has never been a lucrative thing, except for a select few. Now it seems a fool’s errand. But, I believe in music, in innovation and in people. Music provides us with a primal connection that we only experience, fully, live. So, I keep doing what I do, which is not significantly different from my ambitions as a student. I compose music, record albums, play concerts, collaborate and form partnerships, and do way more music admin than ever before. The latter is as important to success as everything else. It feels like a chore, but I’m realising that I can express creativity therein as well.


Name one song or composition you wish you’d written or one you’d like to be known as the definitive interpreter of. What makes that song so important?

A favorite pastime over the last 15 years has been to rearrange jazz standards and songs from the great American songbook to situate them within a South African sound. This being the natural consequence of being a formally trained jazz musician who got hip to township music as a student, and who got booked to play in the bands of Zulu pop icons like Johnny Clegg and Busi Mhlongo. It left an indelible impression and expanded my understanding of blues and swing, the fundamental aspects of jazz. I’d like to record an album of these standards and hope for it to be an important contribution to the South African jazz canon.


In production and arrangement terms, what are facets of your music and the music you love most by others that you feel are crucially important in terms of creating the mood you’re after?

Fundamental to what I do is improvisation and the immediacy of the moment. We play acoustic instruments – grand piano, upright bass and drums. It’s minimalist, and requires minimal intervention from the mixing and mastering engineer if we do our jobs well. To preserve the full, acoustic sound of the instruments, the way they interact with each other and the room acoustically and to capture that in reproduction is an art and a science. It needs an engineer with ears that are attuned to acoustic music, and that uses the unamplified sound of the instruments as a base level for measurement. It’s a culture and tradition of mainstream jazz that I’ve fought to preserve on all of my records.


Which aspects of your music do you prioritise? Is it the melody, the feel or mood, the arrangements – and why?

I prioritise the musicians. They bring the music to life, infuse it with their energy and spirit, and will never be properly compensated for the sacrifices they’ve made to play it. The music is also where we find each other, rarefied air where we can engage our collective imagination, shared humanity and find real depth of connection. The trio format is a chamber music setting. It fosters intimacy and real music dialogue. Jazz is about storytelling, and even the most inane topic can make for an interesting conversation. The compositions on this album are short, to the point, a function perhaps of the world we live in. These are simple music structures, akin to the blues. Rootsy, earthy music on one hand, the left hand , and whimsical, free-floating melodies in the right hand. The yearning for connection, and to be free.


What’s your favourite piece of gear?

In the absence of a well set-up, in-tune acoustic piano that is properly mic’d (that’s a rare thing in most venues), I’ll take my Casio PX-5s digital piano. It feels great to play, has a wealth of features, is light to carry, cuts through great in the mix, and it takes batteries.


What is the story behind Blessings And Blues – the genesis of the songs or compositions, the people involved, the muse behind its creation?

Blessings and Blues is a trio record. I recorded it with my bandmates Ildo Nandja, on bass, and Riley Giandhari on drums at the end of 2019. I did some production work on it in 2020 with my recording engineer, Talent Mbatha while waiting for COVID to blow over. Then I sent it to Erik Jonasson in Gothenburg, Sweden to have it mixed and mastered. He worked on my 2007 release North Facing as well. By now, I’d figured that COVID wasn’t going to blow over, and there was little point to sitting on the album. So. I released it officially on April 6, 2021. The compositional journey for the album began in 2017, though I composed most of the music in 2019 when I turned 50. A time to reflect, and to dream. When a little window opened in December to record my musings, I jumped on it. It was the happenstance of having my trio together in the same room for the first time in a long while. Ildo lives in the Netherlands. It’s a privilege to have them give life to this collection of mainly new music, short cyclical forms, simple chord progressions, little vamps, twists and turns, earthy music, the sound of the soil, the dreams of believers, ceremonial dances and jazz trances, songs for the unsung. It is the blues, simple, but layered. It is African music. It is rock n’ roll. Once assembled, the sequence of songs create a ritualistic feeling, a sense of journey. From the mountains, into the valley, teeming with life, that is loud, colorful and vibrant, a dancer’s life, drenched in the sun, saturated with the sea, the sensory overload of glorious living, the opposite of COVID. Music to learn quickly, know loosely, and to forget. To play with abandon and joy. So it never leaves you. Even as you return to the mountains. You are imprinted with blessings and blues.

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