Shane Cooper “Happenstance”

On Johannesburg composer and bassist Shane Cooper’s Happenstance, drama unfolds. From the opening piano notes on “Static,” Happenstance had me hooked. Reminiscent of Breath of the Wild’s stunning soundtrack, there’s a soft and sentimental feeling that rises from the dew-laden grass. The irregularly-spaced piano notes glisten as Cooper’s bass accompanies the opening steps of this furtive journey.

So much on Happenstance is unclassifiable as this incredible group featuring Cooper, Bokani Dyer, Cara Stacey, Daliwonga Tshangela, Gontse Makhene, Micca Manganye, and Jonno Sweetman pull sonic imagery from a prism in the air. “Static” ventures through a riveting narrative, beginning with excitement and trepidation as Stacey blows psychedelic patterns on her umtshingo, a type of African flute). The organic tonal quality of the umtshingo is like a warm, dusty breeze across the skin as the Tshangela pours out a forward-looking rhythm on cello. It’s a sign the adventure has started.

Normally I might roll my eyes at something described as jazz-concrète, but Happenstance is exactly that. Field recordings pepper the landscape as “Static” dreams of sunny days and open space before dipping back into tense, string-fueled passages where anxiety flirts with the mystical echoes of nyunga-nyunga (a mbira-like instrument) and synths. Stacey’s nyunga-nyunga drips like cool rain in the jungle, satiating a growing thirst for excitement. Rollicking, merry grooves bring things full circle as smooth piano jazz recitations bring “Static” to a reverent end. And that’s just half of Happenstance!

Cooper’s range is endless; his spontaneity boundless. On the beat-driven “Skins,” he finds narrow cracks to explore, bringing surprise vibrations to this thrumming party. Flowing through space and time, “Skins” is a polyrhythmic masterpiece. The percussion trio of Makhene, Manganye, and Sweetman interact with surgical precision while still finding ways to spread their wings. Each section is like its own little world connected by Cooper’s steady, at times hypnotic bass playing. The way everything flows together seamlessly is so impressive. 

Drifting toward the end, there’s a particular section of “Skins” that destroys me. Cooper moves to electric bass, adding harmonics and a reversed tape loop effect to craft a melancholy reminder of past lives, shedding the chains that sink to the deepest end of the ocean. Soulful tonal sequences are hooks straight to the heart; an ache so visceral it’s as if my body can no longer contain it. It only lasts around two minutes, but it’s so moving, so visceral that it has staying power well beyond the break.

Happenstance is like a great novel. Multiple sonic locations that transport listeners into unique narrative worlds, all unfolding in often unexpected ways and driving toward a final destination. Shane Cooper has outdone himself here and with the backing of such an incredible, accomplished band, Happenstance comes to life and presses a kaleidoscope of emotion through a stunning aural wave. 

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