The anatomy of a jazz performance

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Monique Hellenberg is doing her master’s degree in jazz voice through the University of Cape Town. A portion of the marks will be obtained from the thesis she has to hand in, while the other portion will come from being scored on four live performances.

On Tuesday, 30 April Hellenberg held her third performance in the music centre at Pearson High School in Gqeberha.

The word jazz means many things to many people, but in an academic setting a performer needs to be able to tick certain boxes, and challenge the conventions.

The choice of songs, the way she performs, each aspect of the show is scored.

I was allowed to slip in behind the scenes during her performance on Tuesday.

More about Monique Hellenberg

The tiny pocket rocket already had a mean musical presence as a schoolgirl at Rustenburg Girls’ High School in Cape Town.

Her 2020 jazz EP Finally free is available on all the streaming platforms. It is worth listening to. Her single “Imagine” has a somewhat more upbeat performance, while her collaboration with Byron Clarke in “Christmas song” is a classic jazz standard.

She easily slips into pop as well. Her singles “Saw it, wrote it, got it” and “Spend a little time” did well on the radio. In 2008 her voice contributed to the band Goldfish getting a number 1 hit with “This is how it goes”.

Hellenberg is currently a lecturer in jazz and contemporary voice at Nelson Mandela University (NMU) in Gqeberha.

The show

Hellenberg called this performance Embracing omnism.

The word omnism is used mostly in a religious setting. It means something like “seeing and appreciating the beauty in all religions”.

Hellenberg embraced this same sense of diversity under the musical umbrella called jazz.

She opened with “Blue seven” by the great American saxophonist Sonny Rollins, but wrote her own South African lyrics for the performance. So instead of a sax we heard Monique Hellenberg’s voice.

Virgil Mattrass played the concert piano, Tiago Vital picked the bass guitar, and Bevin Maschaka was tasked with the rather difficult and intricate drum solo.

Mattrass is a professional jazz pianist, composer and arranger. He is a member of the Erle Felkers Band and a music teacher at the Diocesan School for Girls in Makhanda.

Tiago Vital has shared the stage with names like Andrew Young, Marcus Wyatt, Gloria Bosman, Tim Moloi and Anna Davel. He teaches at Grey High School in Gqeberha.

Bevin Maschaka has collaborated with the likes of Lira, Judith Sepuma and 5 Kullid Guys. He has performed at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, teaches at Westering High School and lectures at NMU.

Next up was local composer Themba Mkhize’s “Inner peace”. Mkhize, who grew up in a KwaZulu-Natal township, went on to be the musical director of Hugh Masekela and Sibongile Khumalo’s tour through the USA, and he produced Khumalo’s first album. His own music, including “Inner peace”, took on a world-music feel – he did not limit his jazz to what he had learned in the townships at age seven.

Hellenberg’s third song was by Grammy-winning Esperanza Spalding, a bassist and singer. Spalding is known for playing a massive double bass during some performances, but she can certainly play the electric bass as well. “Love in time” starts of slowly, but it steps up and then mixes the rhythms down to slow, then faster again ... It is a tricky piece to perform.

Vital did well to keep the bass humming, and Hellenberg took on the high notes to the great appreciation of her audience.

The song left Hellenberg needing water.

Song number four was nothing less than Bobby McFerrin’s “Thinkin’ about your body”.

Hellenberg is known to have an idol-like appreciation of McFerrin, with whom she has had the opportunity to study for a short while.

It is one thing to appreciate his artistry, and quite another to step into his shoes.

“Thinkin’ about your body” has McFerrin playing an imaginary double bass with thumbing out the low and high notes. It is a difficult piece.

Hellenberg performed it a cappella, just as McFerrin did. She could not do the deep McFerrin bass, so she made the song her own, scatting and sweeping the notes with just her voice and her body.

The spirit of omnism returned when Hellenberg performed the John Coltrane standard “Resolution” with words written for it by jazz great Kurt Elling.

Elling’s lyrics embrace all religions, “God, king above all other gods”, and many different voice techniques, in this rather difficult song.

Hellenberg’s rendition resembled a few lines from the lyrics:

She knows what is gone, gone over
Everyone that is done and unbegun
And starting from the super microcosmic
No bug all the way to super huge galactic suns.

She is a small person with a galactic presence.

But it was Moonchild’s “All the joy” that came next. It is a simpler song where the voice takes centre stage – becoming an instrument while also performing lyrics.

Then came a gear change.

In 1990 Carmen McRae recorded a studio album of the music written by Thelonius Monk, who had died about eight years earlier. She wrote lyrics to his song “Pannonica” and released it as “Little butterfly”. McRae had a deep, sultry voice with a lot of vibrato.

Hellenberg took on Monk’s song and McRae’s words, but it was refreshing to note that the Gqeberha-based songstress did not try to imitate McRae. She performed the song in a Hellenberg way.

We jumped continents then, with Hellenberg taking the audience to Eastern Europe.

In 1994 Basia sang:

One day, while in the south of France
My good friend said I should hug an olive tree
She claimed that dreams come true when you do, but
Can a plant be in any way that beneficial to me?

Basia is a Polish artist who wrote herself into the song:

Though I’m a famous sceptic, feet on the ground
This time I wanted this to be true
Now picture this:
A silly Polish girl in Nice
Embracing trees
Wishing for you

In 2024 a brave South African girl embraced “an olive tree” in the south of Africa.

Curt Rix on trumpet and Graham Beyer on trombone joined the band, while Nande Mzaidume, one of Hellenberg’s recent graduates in jazz and contemporary voice at NMU, who now works as a jazz and contemporary voice lecturer as well, did backing vocals.

Basia’s recordings of her live performances of the song are as energetic as the studio album. Hellenberg and the full band pulled off a similar high-energy version. One had to think back to the last verse Kurt Elling’s lyrics in “Resolution”:

Stay awake, no mistake
Dance the dream awake and awake.

Graham Beyer has worked with Winston Mankunku, Jimmy Dludlu, Hugh Masakela, Nico Carstens, Goldfish and Shawn Phillips.

Curt Rix has performed with many classical orchestras and has collaborated with Sibongile Khumalo, Judith Sepuma, Lira, Feya Faku, Gloria Bosman, Khaya Mahlangu, Amy Faku, Amanda Black and Dumza Maswana.

Nande Mzaidume has worked with Jesse Clegg, the Charl du Plessis Trio, Karen Devroop, Dizu Platjies, Regina Carter and Richard Cock.

For Hellenberg’s final song the entire band was enlisted again.

They ended the show with a Latin American song called “Soy antillana”. It was made famous by the Cuban-born Celia Cruz, who did a lot to popularise the salsa in the USA. In 2011 Cruz even appeared on a postage stamp in the USA, honouring her for her musical contributions.

Hellenberg sang the Spanish lyrics with vigour and was rewarded with a standing ovation.

The nuts and bolts

Putting on such a show is a team effort.

Dave Opperman was in charge of sound, while Etienne Mecloen took charge of the audio recording of the event.

Marlon Louis and his team set up and controlled the lighting during the show, while Andre MacKay and his team recorded the event on video.

Pearson High School provided the venue, with Lestie Hughes taking charge of the facilities.

Two of Hellenberg’s NMU jazz and contemporary voice students, Lethabo Makuruetsa and Oceana Petrus, were the ushers.

Claudio Minnie made sure the star of the show looked the part. I snapped them while they were putting the finishing touches to Hellenberg’s hair.

Zane Carim oversaw the entire technical setup. He was also the MC for the event.

See also:

Gqeberha stamp die bas tydens ’n wêreldpremière

Moderne Suid-Afrikaanse musiek in Gqeberha

An interview with Nina Schumann

Export quality: In conversation with Luna Paige about Harmony

Aus Tebza speel harte warm op die Nasionale Kunstefees

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