Eric Marienthal could not have asked for a better 51st birthday celebration. The renowned American saxophonist was treated to a unique safari experience on his first visit to Africa. He ate cake underneath a starry African sky and had high praise for the other instrumentalists that shared the Ange Noir Parking Lot stage with him. They included fellow compatriot Oscar Seaton on drums, UK keyboard genius Henry Holder and our own Pragmo on keys, Michael Ouma on acoustic guitar and Tshaka Mayanja on bass. Seasoned talent from our eastern neighbours Kenya in the form of Julius Wakake (percussions) and Dezi Ray (guitar) completed the ensemble that would take enthusiasts onto a smooth jazz rollercoaster that lasted into the one o’clock wee hour. Pragmo kicked it off with a divine playing of the classical Beethoven piano
anthem, Fur Elise, which Marienthal picked up on with a peachy saxophone flavour that grew into a splendid reggae tune in the space of three minutes. That was the harbinger of great things to come with the discourse amongst brass and stringed instruments receiving a seasoning of gratifying keyboard playing and Seaton’s animated act on the green Yamaha drum kit. The appreciation rule here was to try and look out for the elements of jazz but even if you were not familiar with jazz jargon like melody, harmony, rhythm, improvisation, blues, swing or improvisation, just sitting back and watching the dialogue between the breezy brass tones from Marienthal’s saxophone and the stringed chords from Ouma’s guitar was gratifying enough.
Some wished Marienthal had stayed around to offer a master class to emerging Ugandan saxophonists on how to sustain a note without getting CPR. Although most of the sessions comprised an introduction to new tunes that were outside Elijah Kitaka’s Jazz Evenings radio playlists, familiar territory came in the last minutes of the show when the instrumentalists were joined by three vocalists; Mathew Nabwiso, Lillian Kyabakye and Deborah Kisakye. It was here that the audience got to sing along to Luther Vandross’ Your Secret Love and Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On.
Even on these slow tempo songs, Seaton (who has played for musical luminaries like George Benson and Lionel Richie) felt he had to expend his energy on hitting his drum kit with musical gusto. Those cymbals must have sighed with relief when the band finally took a bow even with recurrent shouts demanding “one more song”. Dina, Ouma’s kid sister held the promise of an African offshoot to smooth jazz going by her flawless “akogo” (thumb piano) bit on Tamia’s So Into You even when vocalist Kyabakye threatened to ruin the song’s flow. Kitaka and Mayanja, the duo that has embarked on making jazz mainstream in Uganda has promised that the Sizzlin’ Jazz Safari (borrowed from the sizzle of barbequing meat) will be an annual affair. Their biggest prayer will also be that more human beings fill the white plastic seats at Ange Noir in 2009.