The Mixtape Vol 80

Jazz Cat Rus Nerwich shares the music in his head

Those who know Rus Nerwich may be under the impression that he’s a saxophonist, which he is, but then Rus’s primary instrument is actually sound, much like a painter's primary instrument is colour rather than his brush.

The story starts in a small Sea Point bar owned by his father, the Blue Jeans Café, when an Australian asked him to sit in with the band. Rus had never heard a saxophone live before and fell in love with the sound, the form and the way the instrument took on the unique voice of whoever played it.

Today Rus has played all over the world, collaborated with a score of musicians and released eight solo albums, and with the release of his new single, 'Yilibaleni', we decided to use this as an opportunity to speak to the muso about this, the album of which it will form a part – The Whisperer, available on vinyl and in digital formats early next year – and all that jazz.

You've never really stayed in one lane, why have you decided to diversify your musical offering as much as you have?

It’s not really a choice, it’s more to do with what I’m hearing in my head, or inner ear – the groove, the melody, the narrative – it reveals itself, and my thing is to listen and finish it in a way that is true to what I heard, so I don't really think too much about the style or the genre, to me it’s all music. At least, it starts as sound, before it's music, to people who don't dig it, it's noise, to those who do It becomes music, but I know that each idea has its own colour and character and the challenge is to find the inner character of the idea and then let it become itself, stay out of the way and use whatever skill I have to craft it into the best version of itself I can. I also have moderate to severe ADHD, so shit takes its own course. Too much Ritalin as a kid!

You’ve most recently released an afro house banger, could you tell us a bit more about your new track?

'Yilibaleni' started as music for a documentary about a woman by the name of Esther Barsel, a political activist. The instrumental piece grew into what is now – an "afro house banger". Kanyi, the featured vocalist on the track, was part of a band called The Collective Imagination at the time and wrote those killa lyrics as she wanted more songs on which to feature on the live set. So, I reimagined it in a way that would fit in with our live set: Truth is I had that one in the vault for nearly eight years, it just wasn't itself yet. I really wanted to include it on the new album, so I had to get it finished, the original Klezmer melody is still featured at the end of the track, paying respects to Esther Barsel, the inspiration for the piece. Yilibaleni means forget about it, it talks about that point where one needs to let go the stress and struggles, dance and let it all go. But, the device is often alcohol, both the curse and the cure. But hey, Yilibaleni, forget about it....

This is from your upcoming album, The Whisperer. Please would you tell us what we can expect from the project?

The Whisperer has been in the making for almost five years. My goal was to make an album that cohesively explored the very broad scale of my musical influences. Hip-hop, jazz, spoken word and cinematic soundscapes… this is a musically rich album that is both accessible and invites the listener to lean in and discover layers and subtleties that give it its unique sound and character. I approached the electronic component of the album from a very particular perspective, giving it a supportive role, there to enhance the primarily live sound, so it appeals to both cats that enjoy a live band sound and those that lean towards a more produced electronic sound. I love it! It is also a very personal album – I experienced the profound loss of my youngest brother recently and this along with the many joys in my life is woven into the album's character.

Who’s featured on the new album?

During the recording and producing of The Whisperer, I revisited my working relationship with a phenomenal South African MC by the name of Soul Pros. He's featured on a track titled 'Hey Now'. Aside from Soul Pros, the album is full of performances by some of South Africa's most accomplished and respected musicians. Drummer Kevin Gibson, a great teacher to me, who has played on 6 of my albums, provides the rock-solid pocket groove on top of which we laid down the hip-hop beats that Erik carefully crafted, then there are Nicholas Williams, the bass player, and Lee Thomson, the trumpet player, who brought their own magic to the album. Featured on 'Dr Feelgood' is one of my favorite rappers ever, a Dutch cat by the name of Pete Philly. His incredible rhythmic sense, combined with wit and humour, gives him an edge. Then there is Belgian singer N8N who's studio we recorded the last parts of the album and brought some vocal magic, too. Truth is this album is full of fantastic personalities and talents...

The Whisperer has you dropping bars as a MC. Has this got anything to do with you working with Tupac and Jurassic Five collaborator, Erik Rico?

Nope, I made peace with my voice. It’s not quite Freddy Mercury, but I decided that if I have something that I feel is of value to say, then best I say it myself, suspend the aesthetic judgment and self-doubt and put it out there. Hey, someone is gonna dig it, and for the haters, there's always Bieber. I also enjoy writing lyrics, stories and rhymes and it’s a lot of fun to play with words, much like dancing over chords during an improvisation in the jazz idiom. All that said, Erik was an amazing person to work with – very supportive and brought out the best in me. Breaking my nose at five-years-old left me sounding a little nasal – nothing like EQ to sort a deviated septum out!

It's been three years since Under the Poetree, why did you make us wait so long for your next album?

Since the release of Under the Poetree I released another album titled The Wondering Who, which was a Jazz Quartet album. But yes, as far as a follow-up to Under the Poetree, this would be it. Why did it take so long? Partly because I only want to release or say things when there is something to say, something meaningful to say, then songs are like little personalities, and they need time to develop. You can hear something that was banged out over a weekend on Ableton so it could be the next radio hit – it's not my style. I like to craft these little people so they can go into the world as unique. I have also been working on a number of other creative projects so I took time to nurture and craft it so at least when it was done and released I wouldn't look back and say, "Shit! I wish I'd kept that on my computer!" I also have a business that needs equal amounts of nurturing, Tones of Note after 15 years of growth now has three prongs: Education, Booking Agency, and Record Label. So that's a major creative undertaking in itself.

You're actually behind two music schools, could you tell us about these please?

I have experienced the profound impact of having music as an integral part of my life, not only as a listener but as a student of music and as a player. There's wisdom and important life lessons that can be accessed and learnt through and during the process of exploring and learning to play an instrument. Having experienced that, I wanted to create a space that would make it possible for others to do the same. The Woodstock Academy of Music was born with this in mind. It's now going into its fourth year. We are not interested in talent, only the desire to learn and to get closer to sound and music. We have amazing teachers and over 150 students. Come for a lesson on me! The philosophy is to cultivate people's love and curiosity, to teach them in a way that will give them the result they are looking for, rather than what the teacher would like. Our students range from five-years-old to deep into their 70s!

You wrote a children's book and now you're planning a show for the stage. How much fun is it being able to jump from music to the written word, and any of your other creative endeavours? 

Yeah, One Fine Day, Love Came to Visit is one of my favourites. The Whisperer, which is the title of the new album, is partly about just that, all these creative ideas: they are whispers that I hear, ideas that don't necessarily come from me, but I hear them, not loudly so I've got to listen carefully, or they disappear. Not only do I have to listen, but I have to make space for them to grow. Sometimes they are best expressed in song, sometimes in story, sometimes in pictures. I love the word 'fun', it puts joy into the process. From certain points of view I see the creative process as far more important than the end result so it must be fun or the soulfulness is not there. That said, there's a darkness in some of the music on the new album too, and for me dark is not fun, but it's real and must be acknowledged and expressed.