Music Review: Don Laka – Afro Chopin

This review was originally published on The Doughnut.

Don Laka

So here’s a weird thought: Let’s take some of Frédéric chopin’s piano music from the first half of the 19th century, give it a South African beat and turn it into Jazz. Because classical music from the height of Romanticism is the first thing you think of for Jazz, right?

Chopin, whose romantic compositions are famous all over the world, is not the first classical composer who comes to mind if you really want to give one of the ‘greats’ a Jazz clean up. As much as anything, his tunes are too well known, too…mushy. And this is a problem when listening to Don Laka’s new album “Afro Chopin”. This internationally acclaimed Jazz musician, composer and producer decided to create eleven tracks based on the etudes, preludes and other types of pieces by the great Romantic Polish composer and he takes the themes and uses them for the heads, sticking to the traditional Head-solo-recap form for the pieces. On first listening you can’t help but hear the original themes and feel this is a bit cocktail really.

During my first playing of the CD I struggled for the first couple of tracks to decide if the sound was ‘cheesy’ or if I thought it actually worked. But by the fourth or fifth tracks though I was really getting into the sound Laka and his group were making. Before long it dawned on me that I was loving the solos every time. Laka’s piano playing is silky smooth and a real delight to listen to. His fellow musicians are also spot on rhymically, producing quality licks which are interesting and fresh. Add to that Laka’s ‘Kwaii Jazz’ style – fusing South African Jazz and the chord structures and rhythms of Marabi and Kwela music – and you have a surprising freshness behind these too-well-known tunes.

By the time I’d finished playing the CD for the second time I realised that Chopin’s themes had lost their sense of ‘romanticism’ for me and I was hearing them with fresh ears as though they were well-established Jazz standards straight from The Real Book and not from the classical canon at all. This made all the difference and meant that I could now enjoy every part of each track – and I have continued to do so. In fact, ‘Afro Chopin’ could be one of my favourite Jazz albums of the year!

If you’re young enough not to have particularly grown up with Chopin’s piano music and don’t really recognise these tunes in their original form, you’re likely to take to Laka’s album very quickly. In a sense, you’re best off not knowing that it’s Chopin at all but simply accept these themes as Jazz tunes created for the heads and enjoy them for all the melodic inventiveness they inspire. Have a listen to the second track on the album and see what you think:

It shouldn’t be a surprise really to find a Jazz musician playing with Chopin’s licks. Just as Bach’s scalic thinking sits well with the medium and is a classical composer much-beloved among Jazz guys, so Chopin’s rich, extended harmonies prefigure those of Jazz from the 1950s on and it seems most natural to be used in a way the composer could never have guessed admittedly, but would no doubt have been delighted nonetheless.

Don Laka’s ‘Afro Chopin’ is available worldwide from October 2nd.


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