A discussion concerning Adam Glasser and/or his album Mzansi takes you on a detour through a long list of names and places that are unfamiliar to the average yankee, such as myself. We will get to that later, but for now, let’s zero in on Glasser’s instrument of choice: the harmonica. What’s the first thing you think when you see a dude with a harmonica to his mouth? Speaking for myself, “blues” is my first thought. Some of you may think the same thing, possibly pairing it with “traveler.” You may recall one of Steinbeck’s stream-of-consciousness chapters in The Grapes of Wrath where the Okies are rambling on about their instruments. But how about South African jazz?
Just think of Stevie Wonder’s approach to the mouth harp and you’re partway there. Glasser was born in England but was raised in South Africa while his father was studying music at Cambridge. Johannesburg had a pretty happening jazz scene in the ‘60s and Glasser was around to watch the whole thing happen. His family’s move proved to be a case of good timing seeing as apartheid was just about to crack down on jazz clubs and censoring many forms of self-expression. Numerous jazz musicians fled. Some stayed, like Barney Rachabane. Adam Glasser hopped from continent to content, taking in all he could learn from everyone else while keeping the music of his hometown forever rotating in his skull. His harmonica and piano skills would lead him to many high-profile opportunities, such as playing with Joe Zawinul, Sting and producing the Manhattan Brothers. The early-‘90s crumble of apartheid gave way to a revival of South African jazz, and Glasser was right there most of the time, taking part in a joyous and creative moment in music history. Through all of this, he has managed to make only two solo albums, Mzansi being the second.
The sound of Mzansi is very unified, a trait that flies in the face of just how many people appear on this album. There are four bassists, three drummers, three vocalists and three people credited for keyboards/piano including Adam Glasser himself. On top of that are a trumpeter, a guitarist and two saxophonists. That’s seventeen names in all. One glance at a roster like that and I would take this to be some White Album all-star car crash with little-to-no focus. But that’s because I underestimated just how deep-seeded the affinity for South African jazz is in these seventeen brains. True to the entire continent’s musical tendencies, it carries that extra something that makes the music a focal point for communication and rituals than entertainment.
Finding a strict western equivalent is tough. Not because you’ve never heard anything like it before but because it’s a combination of so many things you’ve heard before. The instrumentation is soft to the ears. So if you were to ignore Glasser’s melodic attributes, you could link the band’s professional gloss to that of [gulp] smooth jazz. But like I said, the isolation of melody alone would illustrate that this is a category in which Adam Glasser does not belong. “Stay Cool” sounds like it’s eager to go for a splash in the bay, be it the Caribbean or Cape Town. “Lesson No. 1” plays up the piano tonk pretty well while David Serame waxes/sings/raps socio-political. And let’s not forget those infamous polyrhythms—listening to “Ekhaya” almost makes me nervous for the band, fearing they may loose the beat as easily as I, the listener, did.
Such are the contradictions that are alive and well in jazz’s intercontinental adventures; it doesn’t sound like there’s a lot going on, but there’s a hell of a lot going on. Intercontinental knowledge is not required for the groove to flow. Working on phraseology, that’s another thing entirely.