Composer, Arranger, Pianist

MUSIC

 

ABOUT ME

Interviewed and written by: Gwen Ansell

 

Ramon Alexander confesses that he “didn’t grow up in jazz”. Rather, the Mamre-born pianist and composer spent his first decade filling his ears with the brassy sounds of Moravian hymns and the surviving legacy of Khoisan music in the community around the historic mission station. His elder brother played trumpet in the church band. When Alexander’s parents divorced, the children moved with their mother to settle in Mossel Bay, and there the young Ramon had his first – classical – piano lessons, aged 10.

 

But by that time his brother’s tastes had broadened, and he was avidly consuming the products of the American GRP smooth jazz label (co-founded by pianist Dave Grusin). “I used to imitate what my brother did a lot,” says Alexander, “and although I was listening to classical music too, because of my lessons, that was how I found jazz. When my parents split, getting absorbed in music was my way of getting by.”

 

At the same time, the young pianist developed a fascination with composers and composition. “You know the way kids will doodle words?” he says. “Well I got intrigued by composers’ names: Beethoven, Bach, Mozart. Remember, where I grew up there was no frame of reference for what it was to be a composer. Somebody like Beethoven or Mozart was ‘out there’ – fascinating, but not quite real to me. Even though I was already thinking up tunes – but at that time in my head; composing on paper came very much later.”

 

It was that same brother who later took Ramon to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. “There was a Cuban band playing at the Monument Theatre,” he recalls. “When I saw that band, I got hooked on playing jazz.”

 

So in 1998, now aged 18, Alexander studied with Cape Town piano and vibes player Merton Barrow at his jazz workshop. “I got general exposure to the whole world of jazz there, “ Alexander says. “Theory, practice, and listening to recordings of Keith Jarrett, Thelonius Monk, Bill Evans…everybody.”

 

Alexander considered going to UCT, but after exploring opportunities at Webster University in St Louis though a friend of his mother’s, he finally opted to apply for an SAA bursary in winemaking at Stellenbosch University.  “I was torn between the creative side of the arts, and doing something more technical that would clearly lead to employment – and winemaking felt to me somewhere between an art and science. And besides – there were bursaries available!” (Alexander actually won one out of only six available places in his year.)

 

While studying, Alexander continued to play, first as part of student Christian outreach activities, and later with his own ensemble, ESP. “It was a name with a lot of meanings, “ he says. “There was Miles Davis’s album, ESP, which we all admired. Then there was the slightly mysterious way – I suppose, almost like extra-sensory perception – in which the members of the group, all in Stellenbosch for very different reasons, found each another. But we decided that our name was actually Eccentric Sound Productions: ESP.”

 

ESP played wherever there was work: festivals, corporate functions and more. That was when Ramon Alexander the composer came to the fore. “I started writing more: initially a lot of transcribing for our collaborations. And by 2004, when we cut an album, seven out of the 12 tracks were my compositions.”

 

Gradually, Alexander began to feel it was time “to get my foot into the Cape Town music scene. Which was a bit intimidating – I suppose like when a Cape Town player lands in Johannesburg.” But patient hard work led to his establishing a solid reputation with the city’s jazz listeners “and it came to the point where people would ask when I am playing, so they could come to the shows.”

Alexander now works regularly: leading his own ensembles (most often with partner Annemie Nel on drums), in a range of bands at clubs like Cape Town’s Crypt, and with the Cape Jazz Band, which plays a repertoire of Cape-composed music, historic and modern. In May 2015, the Cape Jazz Band is set to visit the Netherlands, Alexander’s first overseas tour as a full-time musician.

 “When I look at what we’re doing now, “ reflects Alexander, “I think about a conversation I had with the late [saxophonist] Robbie Jansen. He told me: ‘We’ve established this thing called Cape Jazz. What you younger guys need to do now is to add sophistication.’ I think what he meant was the kind of thing Kyle [Shepherd, pianist] is doing: putting thoughtful compositions into concert halls  - taking the music to places it has never been before.”

Alexander continues to compose prolifically. He’s also re-visiting the music of legendary Cape band Pacific Express: “My generation only knows one or two of their tunes – the obvious pop numbers like Give a Little Love. But there was some fantastic, creative composing in that band; it should be revived and played more.” Away from the piano, he lives quietly, spending time with friends and listening to music “Still more to classical than to jazz – except, of course, for Keith Jarrett.”

And what, in the midst of all this, happened to the winemaking? Alexander has no doubts. “I haven’t lost my interest. But I see winemaking as something I can fall back, on when I’ve had enough of all this.” His voice is decisive: “I’m a musician now.”

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Photo By: Sigal Mizrahi

 
 
 

Photo By: Yiftach Belsky

CONTACT ME

LABEL | info@i-studios.co.za, +27 82 716 7962

 

MANAGEMENT | info@i-studios.co.za, +27 84 587 5536

 

BOOKING | info@i-studios.co.za, +27 71 359 2289

 
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