The Crypt Jazz Restaurant

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I love how experiences find us.

The undying traveler in me always keeps one eye available to be caught by something worth exploring as I scan and skim and absorb words around me, whether it be in print, posters, people or the (p)internet.

Earlier this week my attention was lightly caught by the headline in my local paper, The Tatler, saying “Jazz at the Crypt” – what’s not appealing about that!? So I switched mediums to the internet and found a refreshing amount of information about what was happening at this venue. When I was at junior school, I did bell-ringing for a while in the cathedral adjacent to The Crypt, but I had never been to the restaurant next door and was excited for the spring tide of nostalgia-meets-novelty.

As it turns out, it is guitar month at The Crypt – what a perfect time for me to return to Cape Town! With low expectation but high excitement, my gorgeous friend and I snatched a parking spot right outside and caught up on the past year over a velvet glass of red and complimentary popcorn at Twanky across the road before heading over. We entered at ground level and then walked down some stairs into a cosy, dimly-lit venue that felt like we truly were descending or rather transcending into another world, and so we were.

The house red was reasonably priced and had more character and spice than I’d expect from a house wine. Swirling the experience around my mouth with joy, we were seated with 2 delightful Italian women who had also come on a whim without booking, and only later I realised that all 4 of us were lucky to get a seat.

Three musicians took to the stage with open, animated faces and a casual grace that both subtly disguised and at the same time displayed their experience. Beginning with the oud, Gionni di Clemente had our full attention as soon as he started playing. He proceeded to spend the evening lavishing us with an auditory exhibition of his extraordinary talent as he smoothly transitioned between his oud, 10 string and 12 string guitars. A warm, descriptive and intuitive musician, he shared his Italian nature with us generously like a feast. As my dear Erin astutely noted, watching his fingers move, dance, rain music onto us was like watching spiders scramble, and as if each finger was independent and able to effortlessly command its own what seemed like more-than 5-fingered songs. I had no doubt that this man could pick up any stringed instrument and know it, and how to create through it. Ronan Skillen, a German Cape Town based percussionist blew us away with how subtly he enhanced the performance. His “drum kit” comprised of 3 differently-angled Turkish drums (though he only played 2 at a time), some small cymbals, various strings and bunches of beads, various-thickness sticks and a few bell-type objects/chimes. I have never in all my life seen a percussionist so deeply connected with a lead guitarist, even though they apparently only had 1 take of each song together. I watched every part of his form separately as he played: His eyes were fixated on Gionni, his mouth was relaxed and his lips upturned in a genuine smile, his shoulders and arms rhythmically rolled in their sockets as if he was kneading dough and his hands performed such symbiotic, subtle magic, dancing, threading and weaving the fabric of each song, making possible sounds I haven’t heard in a live music concert before but will never be able to forget. He lightly tapped the cymbals with his finger, gently used the same digit to rustle a bunch of beads, effortlessly created waves of sound by circling a differently-configured string of beads around one of his many small-but-sensitive microphones. It was this man and his art who captivated me the most, even though I was drawn to the event because of the guitarist. So too, Mike Rossi was playing the saxophone, flute and clarinet and he immediately and consistently proved himself to be a true master of his craft, playing runs of notes with more speed, understanding and clarity than I can remember hearing.

I witnessed muscle memory and rigorous years of discipline free them into other-worldly improvisation with a most-welcome Turkish feel, lilting us upwards to the East, naturally built and strengthened by being perfectly in tune with their instruments and each other in a deeply intuitive way. One could study an instrument their entire lives, but there is no guarantee that it would enable one to play intuitively or to improvise with others in a way that enhances the experience for them and the listeners to this extent. These 3 men are true experts and masters of string, wind and rhythm and it was a powerful joining of forces, a combining of elements. Rhythm from the earth, stringed melody from the water, aired notes on the wind. I thought of nature, and the power that is displayed in a storm, when lightening cracks, when the rain pours, when the wind howls, and we know that we are no more than mere mortals and yet we get to behold such a symphony with humble awe. At one point, watching them play, all I saw was their brains illuminate in multicolour, synapses firing signals inside their minds and sending messages to their fingers, to each other, to us as the audience, communicating seamlessly and sharing part of the creation.

We saw them play 3 high-intensity sets over 3 hours, and by the end I was an exhausted, breathless pool of wonder. I was so aware of the fact that thousands of hours of playing, of discipline and of practice were fractionally represented in what we heard, and I honoured their origin silently. What does one say to a musician who knows how good they are and is told constantly? How do we convey our thanks, for how they touch and change our lives? How can we be of any use to them, in comparison to the musical and neurological journey they take us on with their playing? I do not know, but I do know this: I will never forget what I saw and will continue to explore and appreciate the talent around me.

I recommend that Cape Tonians go to The Crypt on Wale Street to hear some wonderful jazz over a meal or a glass of red wine. If there is a particular show on, make sure to book in advance as the venue is gloriously intimate and you don’t want to miss out.

Keep your eyes open.

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