Percy Mabandu meets jazz pianist Paul Hanmer and discovers his journey
Idling into the driveway of jazz pianist Paul Hanmer’s Observatory home on the eastern edge of Joburg takes on a mythical quality.
The sun recedes into the brooding clouds and the greenery grows bolder, and then reveals the musician framed by tall pines and other trees. It’s like a scene from a Tolkien classic.
He stands, peering sternly through his glasses into the car like a cleric receiving guests. His all-black attire completes the look. Black baggy sports pants. Black short-sleeved shirt. Black All Stars give him street-savvy appeal.
I’m here to talk about the 52-year-old musician’s performance at the 5th Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF). Hanmer gave a show improvising piano lines to a black-and-white German silent film from 1927 shown at the Bioscope, the trendy alternative cinema in Jozi’s downtown Maboneng Precinct.
We leave his dog, an inquisitive golden retriever, and the rest of the Hanmer household and head to the lush garden. He leads me to a red milkwood tree. A tyre swing hanging from it, a sign of children’s presence. A subject we scantly touch on later in our chat.
Hanmer’s last recorded release was a collaborative effort of compositions for The Bow Project, launched in 2002 by Michael Blake to encourage South African composers to engage with traditional music as a compositional resource. That’s not to say Hanmer hasn’t been busy since then. Far from it.
He composed music for a wind quintet for the Mozart anniversary in 2006. It marked his first bout with the German composer.
Last year he was called on as composer in residence at the JIMF. The result was a three-movement concerto with four solo parts. It included a piece titled Nachtroep, a triple concerto for trumpet and ﬂugelhorn, violin and piano with string orchestra and Nightjar Breaks, a short fantasia for solo ﬂute and string orchestra.
Hanmer’s personnel included soulful trumpeter Feya Faku, Massimo Mercelli on ﬂute, Mikhail Simonyan on violin, Florian Uhlig on piano and Ariel Zuckermann as conductor, along with the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra providing the chorus of strings.
Right now he’s writing a concerto for the Switzerland Youth Orchestra with a solo for clarinettist Robert Pickup. They first worked together in 1996 on the recording that formed the basis of Hanmer’s second album, Window To Elsewhere.
This increasingly exclusive foray into the classical tradition is notable for a man who enjoys the level of respect he does as a jazz pianist. He’s worked with local greats like saxophonist McCoy Mrubata, perceptive drummer Kevin Gibson and guitar wizard Louis Mhlanga. Hanmer gave a tribute to Alex van Heerden at The Bird’s Eye jazz club in Basel, Switzerland.
He chuckles and reminds me that some of his jazz piano heroes have done work on Mozart at some point in their careers. The great Herbie Hancock played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 5, Mvt. 1. with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was only 11 years old. In 1996 pianist Keith Jarret released Mozart Piano Concertos with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. Then there’s Chick Corea, who colaborated with Bobby McFerrin on an album called Mozart Sessions. So Hanmer is in stellar company.
He says the rigorous compositional demands of the classical tradition are part of what makes the genre viable at this point in his life.
“Composing is part of my personal struggle to get organised,” he says, adding that his life is all over the place without it. Classical music lends itself to the idea of music as an accounting discipline.
“If it’s not written on that page, you can be sure you’re not going to hear it,” he insists with a chuckle.
“Let’s face it, of all the written notes that went into my first albums, Trains To Taung would only make a few pages compared with the concerto I wrote for the Mozart festival.
“Trains To Taung’s music relied heavily on what the band brought to the guidelines one gives them as a leader. It’s a much more collaborative creation, with greater improvisation by the guys. It’s unlike these concertos, which demand that every note be put down on the page,” he says.
Lighting a Lexington, he grows pensive when he talks of his anxiety about wasting time on mundane stuff. His breaths growing shorter, he says he must sit at the piano for at least a minimum of 45 minutes a day to write. “Otherwise, life goes up in other things. Like checking on the dog, paying bills, fixing this and that, spending time with kids, and the wife – which is beautiful – but then the day is done and what have you done with it.”
Our serene atmosphere in the garden is momentarily contested by his cantankerous dog. Hanmer locked it in the house when we came to the garden, but it has found a way to stand on the window sill and bark at us.
We resume our conversation on the subject of his childhood. He tells me he grew up on the Cape Flats and was taught classical piano by Anthony Blake, a high school classmate of his eldest sister, Lyn.
He then launched a career as a keyboardist in pop cover bands in Cape Town and the surrounds. An urge to become part of a larger musical conversation in the country would see him move lock, stock and barrel to Joburg in June 1987.
Hanmer says early on in his career he started worrying about creating an authentic sound.
“I wanted to speak from somewhere. I was eager to create a music that sounded like it came from this soil,” he says.
However, being of Cape coloured descent had its own curve balls for this aspiration.
“My parents couldn’t tell me where I was from. They just wouldn’t give me clear enough answers. There’s a secretiveness about family histories among the coloured community.
“So there’s parts of the family we share out openly, but there’s also these parts that we don’t talk about.
“To begin with, I couldn’t understand how I didn’t know the other five Hanmers in the phone book,” he says.
Hanmer says his mother grew up on a farm in Victoria West. She had a Flemish-Dutch surname, De Jager. His father is from Worcester. The issue was never discussed beyond that.
The search for his mysterious roots went into music. The roots grew into a more composite exploration of the collective human identity rather than him as an individual. His first album, Trains To Taung, takes its name from the site where the first hominid was discovered in Africa, a species later named Australopithecus africanus or the Taung Child.
The supposed train trip to Taung in this sense is about the journey to the source, to our common place of origin. It was about capturing this idea of a place where we all come from.
The album that followed, Window To Elsewhere, which was released in 1998, was about seeing the outside world from the new-found comfort of home and its implied secured identity. The two projects were then followed by Playola in 2000, Naivasha in 2002 and Water + Light in 2004. By then Hanmer was fully settled into the South African pantheon of jazz men.
As our chat unfolds with relative ease, the dog reminds us of its presence. He is joined by others from around the neighbourhood in a chorus.
Hanmer’s pensive concentrations give way to a genial smile and we both crack up at the canines’ insistence on being heard.