Long road to arts festival for US master drummer

Jeff Siegel made a plan to get to the National Arts Festival in Makhanda
Jeff Siegel made a plan to get to the National Arts Festival in Makhanda
Image: Supplied

Following years of endless preparation to get his band to SA for a series of gigs with the esteemed trumpeter bra Feya Faku, US-based master drummer Jeff Siegel found himself having to improvise.

Bra Feya experienced personal loss a week before their SA tour, which set off a health condition that barred him from gigging.

Devastated but not deterred, Jeff marched on in trueschool jazzhead fashion; he roped in Robin Fassie-Kock for some dates, and also fraternized with bra Sidney Mavundla, with whom he’s playing at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival this year.

“I actually met [Feya Faku] in Woodstock, New York, briefly and then a few months later, over here [in SA] when I played at the festival.

“We became friends, and talked about doing a project – which we did. We recorded about two years later [and] did a tour a year later in New York. And so we’ve been trying to come here for these five years.

“Now it’s finally happened except, very unfortunately, there was a lot of stresses going on in [Feya’s] life,” he says over the phone from Makhanda.

“I had built in a couple of days off for the band to rest [during the trip], and we ended up just having to rehearse with these guys.

“Both Sidney and Robyn did a wonderful job, learning the music really quickly and just fitting in beautifully. But it was tiring for the band because we never had a chance to fully rest,” he continues.

Siegel considers it an honour and a privilege nonetheless, and sounds excited about playing.

He speaks about previous gigs in Jozi, and workshops in Pretoria and Mbabane, Swaziland.

“The thing that has always struck me the most about the elders is their commitment to the music, first and foremost, and at such a high level, and to aspire to be consistent and to be as strong as possible, and to have integrity,” is his response about the role of mentorship in his long stretched-out career thus far.

“Everybody does it their own way. I’ve done it through both teaching and playing; it’s really hard to do it playing, it’s almost impossible. Luckily, I love to teach.

“Every once in a while I get the energy to just put a whole lot of time and work into putting together something like this tour. It’s a monumental amount of work. In particular, this tour is the hardest thing I think I’ve ever undertaken,” he says.

The financial muscle it took to pull it off was made possible through individual contributions of all the band members - applying for grants, getting them, and deciding where to slot what, and how.

“But it all worked out great. I think I’ll need a travelling accountant. It was so involved, financially,” he jokes.

The master’s current band features tenor saxophonist Erica Lindsay and pianist Francesca Tanksley.

“They can hold their own with anybody. They are unbelievable.”

He remains upbeat that the recording he made with bra Feya Faku will be performed in Mzansi at some point in the future.

“We’re not giving up. I know I’m gonna need to recover from all the work I did. I have to try again man. He’s my brother and ... I don’t like to give up on anything, I don’t like to fail. So I just always keep trying. And that’s what it takes; it’s tenacity to have a career in this music.”

Jeffery Siegel is a formidable talent who came into the New York jazz scene at the dawn of the 80s as part of the late Arthur Rhames’ quintet. He’s since established himself over the years; he counts the don Ron Carter and drummer extraordinaire Jack DeJohnette among his mentors and collaborators.

He is also involved in the academy, and teaches at three separate institutions, including The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York. He promises to perform songs from King of Xhosa, the album he recorded with bra Feya in 2017.

● Jeff Siegel and his sextet featuring Sydney Mavundla performs at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival in the DSG Hall at 8.30pm on July 2.