JAZZ DIARY / Ain't misbehavin: Bheki Mseleku's last album took just two days to record. Phil Johnson talked to him

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The Independent Culture
Simply Red and U2, nominees for the Mercury Prize (the music industry's attempt at a Booker), may not need the exposure it brings, but the selection of Bheki Mseleku's Celebration among the shortlist of 10 albums offers an important boost to the South African pianist's career. It's unlikely that Mick Hucknall or Bono had to go into debt to help finance the recording sessions for their albums but Mseleku needed to borrow money for the hire of a Steinway piano, and to pay for an extra day's mixing time himself. The album took only two days to record, less time than is normally spent getting the drum sound right on a pop record. 'It was rushed,' says Mseleku. 'We mixed for two days but weren't satisfied, so we were told that if we wanted to carry on we'd have to pay for it ourselves. The music sounds much better because of the extra time, especially the bass. Even though I know the album could have been better, I'm happy with the outcome.'

Celebration is the result of a remarkable collaboration between Mseleku - who plays tenor sax as well as piano - and the New York rhythm section of drummer Marvin 'Smitty' Smith and bassist Michael Bowie. The two Americans first heard Mseleku when they were playing with Dave Holland's quartet at Ronnie Scott's and were so impressed that they would spend their breaks sitting in with him. The relationship has developed since, culminating in Smith and Bowie's appearance on the album and a series of live dates which were given rave reviews.

Unable to afford their services for all of his gigs, Mseleku is now struggling to come to terms with a British rhythm section. That Mseleku himself should be considered a British artist - a qualification for the Mercury Prize - is more a matter of luck than judgement. A Zulu, born in Durban in 1955, he first left South Africa to tour Europe and America with Malombo Jazz. He intended to settle in New York but when the group broke up in London he was forced to return home before leaving once again to join bassist Johnny Dyani in Sweden in 1980. Arriving in London for a second time in 1985 he established a formidable reputation but failed to get a record deal and supported himself by teaching music at Oval House in south London.

Part of the reason for Mseleku's success over the last year rests with his friend and fellow South African exile Russell Herman, the album's co-producer. While Mseleku is placid and reserved, apt to answer interviewers' questions about his music with sincere talk about the transmigration of souls, Herman lives more easily in the material world. He has relentlessly badgered promoters, record companies and jazz writers to take note of Mseleku, neglecting his own career as a guitarist in the process. The two first met in Cape Town and palled up again when Mseleku came to Europe. 'We have always supported each other,' says Herman. 'He's someone who deserves some serious recognition and his project is my project too. We realised that to get our message across certain things would have to be done. You need to stay on a case until you get results.'

While Herman is negotiating with US record companies and planning the next stage of their campaign, Mseleku is hoping to record again as soon as possible. He has a whole new set of compositions ready and waiting but as he doesn't read music they are all in his head. 'I've never been to school so I'm self-taught but I've been teaching people who read music, who even have degrees,' Mseleku says. 'I don't think music started from being written down, just like talking didn't start from writing.'

'Celebration' is available on World Circuit. Bheki Mseleku and his band play the Brecon Jazz Festival on Friday 14 August. Details on 0874 625557.

Bad behaviour is an essential ingredient in the folklore of rock'n'roll. In jazz, however, a lack of money has tended to limit the scope for widespread hotel-trashing and roadie-burning. Instead, musicians have traditionally concentrated on destroying themselves rather than their rooms. The relatively greater age and education of jazz musicians has also militated against schoolboy pranks; it's hard to imagine Duke Ellington heaving a television through a window or Dave Brubeck organising a panty-raid. The contract-rider - in which artists routinely request the most extravagant collection of food and drink they can think of for their backstage delectation - is however occasionally exploited by visiting jazz stars. Bizarre, if admittedly cheap, requests on British tours have included a large quantity of diced carrots for David Sanborn and gallons of distilled water for Chick Corea (no one could work out what he did with it).

Though insensitivity on the scale of Spinal Tap has yet to emerge in jazz, a number of large egos have been jostling for position on the festival circuit this summer. At the Glasgow Jazz Festival, the Tribute to Miles Davis concert, featuring ex-Davis stars Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Ron Carter, plus Wallace Roney on trumpet, started to go wrong when the band arrived at the airport. A driver sent to meet the plane had prepared a sign with 'Hancock et al' written on it, an abbreviation which apparently didn't go down well with the other musicians.

The bad feeling continued at the concert that night: Tony Williams's drums were mixed far too loud and after a couple of numbers a voice from the audience called out for the drum mikes to be turned down. The musicians reacted as if someone had just shot at them. Williams took the rebuke especially badly, abandoning his drumsticks and playing with brushes for the rest of the evening, effectively sabotaging the performance.

Also at Glasgow, veteran bluesman Albert King, on seeing that he would have to ascend a flight of stairs to the stage of the Barrowlands ballroom, demanded to be carried. Eventually cajoled into the climb by a female festival worker, King did his soundcheck and then refused to come down again until the end of the show, having his dinner served to him on stage. A display of paranoia worthy of the last performances of Jim Morrison occurred during the recent Festival Hall concert by Keith Jarrett and his trio. The band refused to continue playing when drummer Jack DeJohnette thought he had spotted the red record-light of a camcorder in the audience. As the camcorder was searched for, Jarrett harangued the audience about their responsibilities to the artist. To the group's embarrassment, the light turned out to be an LED on the mixing desk.

'D oes he really talk like that?', a bemused listener asked Radio 3 producer Derek Drescher about presenter Geoffrey Smith. It is a year since the Michigan-born Smith took over Jazz Record Requests from the late Peter Clayton, whose softly-softly tones had defined the sound of jazz on the radio for years. Despite the contrast in voices, the shape of the programme has not really changed, with Smith continuing to favour what he calls 'the Claytonian mix', avoiding a chronological approach and varying the length of the tracks. Though Smith loves to play new records, the BBC's own library sadly isn't always up to the job these days. 'You'll find maybe six copies of a MJQ album from the Sixties, but now they buy very little,' he says.

From this Tuesday, Smith can also be heard presenting a series on the music of Mike Westbrook. Bright As Fire is broadcast at 4.30pm on Radio 3. Jazz Record Requests is on Saturdays at 5pm.

(Photograph omitted)

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