IT HAS not, so far, been an impressive year for jazz album releases. There have been few, and most of those have occupied spaces on the genre's Venn diagram that touch the style but are not central to it.
The reasons for this are complex: in Gauteng, the shortage of venues hampers the live development of new music. Across the country a beleaguered record industry is prepared to take even fewer risks on niche music than before.
So it is not surprising that when two superlative examples of South African jazz appear, they are both independent releases. Marcus Wyatt's quartet album, ZAR , is on his own label, Language12; Kevin Davidson's quintet outing, Breathing Winston , is on Afrisonic. Independent record stores (where they have survived) and the Jassics distribution company are your most likely sources of stock.
ZAR is trumpeter Wyatt's vehicle for presenting some of the new compositions he's been amassing. The other members of the quartet are Wyatt's regular bassist, Prince Bulo, drummer Justin Badenhorst, and pianist Afrika Mkhize, who's heard far too rarely on the live circuit.
The eight tracks are all original. Most are from Wyatt but there are two short, brilliant pieces (Telling Tales) improvised by the ensemble: the sharpest expressions of the live feel of a recording session completed in a day.
The final track's genesis is described by its title: That Melody (Fits Beautifully Over) That Bassline, co-composed with Carlo Mombelli.
For those who miss the kinds of tunes Wyatt was writing at the time of his debut on Gathering, the album opens with Lindiwe, a sprightly, joyous piece of classic South African jazz sounding, says the composer "somewhere midway between Cape Town and Joburg". Lindiwe is at least as catchy as Gathering's Lullaby for an African Princess. But the literal and musical centrepiece of the outing is Devotion, a 12-minute exploration of the feel of Indian devotional music, which features intense and empathetic stretching out from everybody involved.
The se values - collaboration, communication, meticulous playing, challenging ideas - characterised the Golden Age of jazz. In that sense, ZAR is a somewhat retro release, but in a very good way.
The same is true of tenor saxophonist Davidson's Breathing Winston (Living John), an explicit tribute to Coltrane, to the late Winston Mankunku Ngozi and players of his generation Davidson worked with: "My soul brothers Duke Makasi, Robbie Jansen, Ezra Ngcukana and Barney Rachabane." There's nothing opportunistic about this: Davidson's reed voice belongs in this company with its assertive tone, deeply felt emotion and take-no- prisoners imagination.
The nine tracks include classics the Yakhal'Inkomo and Ntyilo Ntyilo as well as Davidson's own compositions. And the group is composed of the kind of players who are regularly described as "stalwarts" of the scene, without anyone acknowledging just how good their individual playing is: pianist Roland Moses, bassist Pete Sklair, drummer Peter Auret, guitarist Hugo de Waal, and guest trombonist Dan Selsick.
Davidson, who teaches at the Tshwane University of Technology, writes memorable tunes (the one that sticks in my head is the wistful Obsidian Cutting Deeper) and his notes create great take-off points for improvisation - space that he's generous in sharing with his co- players. On Yakhal'Inkomo, Moses's graceful, complex solo is distinctive enough to displace the memory of Lionel Pillay on the original. Throughout, Sklair's thoughtful bass stretches out more strongly than we've heard him on record since Unofficial Language.
But the revelation is De Waal, a former student of the late John Fourie, with whom he shares a watchmaker's attention to the finest detail of tone, mood and note. Ntyilo Ntyilo - taken as a lyrical waltz - sounds strikingly fresh; the mood reminiscent of Trane riffing on a popular song. Davidson instructs: "This ain't no background album - play this music loud," and he's right.
Both ZAR and Breathing Winston qualify as local jazz albums of the year. Both should be in any collection. And though competitive awards are pretty meaningless, both should feature high in the nominations for next year's Sama awards.