I queued up this disk on a grey Monday morning, and from the first exuberant blast on the opening track, my whole week just got better. This disk of nine originals by white South African alto saxophonist and pennywhistle player Morris Goldberg (you know him from the iconic pennywhistle on Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”) was originally recorded in 1996, but it has just been re-released with enhanced remastering by Sunnyside. Ojoyo Plays Safrojazz (as in South African Jazz) was Goldberg’s first recording with his group Ojoyo, a vehicle for infectious jazz and South African Afrobeat fusion in the style of Dudu Pukwana or Hugh Masekela (with whom Goldberg played off and on for decades). Ojoyo is perhaps a bit slicker and more commercial than some other more rootsy South African music (though well short of straight South African pop like Johnny Clegg), but the resulting sound is bright, irresistibly danceable, and instantly appealing.
Goldberg’s alto saxophone sound has the crisp clarion cry of Afrobeat saxophonists Pukwana and Fela Kuti. He has a fine jazz musician’s sense of swing, adding Latin melodicism over the percolating South African rhythms. And how much fun it must be to be a professional pennywhistlist! Is there a more joyful instrument? Its folksy, authentic, and playful sound cuts right to the top of the group dynamic. There’s just enough of it to leave you wanting more.
The surprise on this disk is the 34-year-old trumpet player. His tone is rich and mellow enough to be mistaken for a flugelhorn. He plays in perfect unison with Goldberg’s alto sax, matching every inflection and detail of phrasing. Even though he was born and raised in Oregon, he has that particular phrasing and articulation that sounds natively South African — there’s a certain way of quickly falling off a note at the end of a phrase that Masekela trademarked, the absence of Western-style vibrato, and the rhythmic instinct for syncopating with the distinctive up-beats in South African music (a connection between Afrobeat and reggae). Ready to guess who it is? No, you’re not. It’s Chris Botti!
Other standout players are Bakithi Kumalo on bass, slapping and popping like it’s 1996 and keeping everything in a bubbling groove throughout, and Anton Fig (who would go on to anchor the David Letterman Show band). Tony Cedras and Richard Cummings are on the keyboards, supplying jazz harmonies and some great solos; Cyro Baptista serves up restrained but powerful percussion.
This is a wonderful soundtrack to a year full of promise in South Africa, when Nelson Mandela was president, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work, and the new Constitution was adopted. May its re-release be a soundtrack of good luck to us all in 2021.
— Allen Michie