South African jazz took a hit in the early 1960s when many of its leading lights — Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba — went into exile, many of them passing away before their time. By the end of the decade, however, the music was in better health, poised between earlier kwela and marabi influences and the mbaqanga and fusion that would characterise the 1970s. Chris Schilder, who took the name Ibrahim Khalil Shihab after converting to Islam in 1975, was one of a family of Cape Town musicians. From his teens he played piano in the clubs of District Six, the cosmopolitan enclave that was later forcibly cleared by the Apartheid government. In 1968, aged 22, he was invited to Johannesburg by his younger brother Philly, a bassist, and took the band they formed on a tour of southern Africa. That November (hence the title), they recorded Spring in a single two-hour session in Johannesburg.
The record has had an unhappy history. The session was rushed — an engineer refused Shihab a second take of a track with a flubbed note — and the pianist’s contribution was overshadowed by the saxophonist Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi, who was riding high on the back of his own debut Yakhal’ Inkomo a few months earlier. The master tapes were then wiped or destroyed in a fire.
Matsuli’s reissue brings the record back to life with astounding sonic clarity. The two lengthy showcases, “Spring” and “The Birds”, stretch out with Mankunku’s expressive lines and fluttering trills in conversation with Shihab’s rhythmic piano. The title track’s cautious promise of hope (“everything is recovering from a severe winter” is the coded message in the original liner notes) has a swing that faintly recalls Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”; when Shihab hits his solo around five minutes in, it has a rippling fluency in the right hand and a left-hand vamp that locks in with his brother’s bass and the tick of cymbals from Gilbert Matthews. The group’s days as penniless musicians are alluded to in “The Birds”, with Philly Schilder’s bass a low rumble as Mankunku limbers up to take flight. The walking bassline into which it resolves offers the saxophone the opportunity to move into a blues that echoes early Coltrane, and yet more richly fluent soloing from Shihab.
‘Spring’ is released by Matsuli