Seated at his baby grand, Kyle Shepherd’s lithe fingers move quickly and expertly across the keys, his face inches away from his hands. His eyes are closed. There are cameras directed at him from nearly every angle and a microphone hovering above his head. He barely registers these: in this moment, it’s just Kyle, his piano, and the music.
There’s an air of serenity about Kyle, an assuredness in his demeanour. His movements are slow, but purposeful. He speaks gently but his voice conveys a sense of authority, a knowing, half-smile creeping in intermittently. The son of Mechell Shepherd, a violinist who worked with South African jazz icon Abdullah Ibrahim, music has always been a part of his world – and his fluency in its ways shows.
“My mom exposed me to so much music,” he says. “She was playing with people like Abdullah, Basil Coetzee, and Robbie Jansen, so I got to hear those things, even before I knew exactly what it was. When I started playing jazz and the piano, something always felt familiar, like I knew this thing already.”
This thread of familiarity runs through most aspects of his life. His studio is in his grandmother’s Grassy Park home. Though Kyle couldn’t be more welcoming, it is such an intimate space – teeming with childhood memories and his grandparents’ visible pride in their grandson – that you can’t help but feel like you’re intruding in a way.
Torn out newspaper clippings mentioning Kyle plaster the walls. School photographs line the table in the corner. His Standard Bank Young Artist Award is there too. Though it takes pride of place, his attitude toward the accolades is a philosophical one. “You have to be careful,” he warns. “If you’re looking for self-esteem from things like these, that’s the mistake.”
He’s a multi-talented musician, trained in the violin, the saxophone and the Xaru (a traditional mouth-bow) – but it’s the piano that’s his most consistent companion. He considers his creative process as becoming more intellectual the older he gets, with improvisation requiring a quick and alert mind. “People don’t realise that about jazz,” he says. “Every second there’s a decision to be made – even faster than that.”
As an art form, South African jazz carries an enormous historical weight; its contribution to the social and political landscape of the country cannot be overstated. Though mindful and respectful of his chosen genre, Kyle is hesitant to box himself in – he thrives in spaces that allow him liberty, which is perhaps part of what attracted him to jazz. “What I love about it is the freedom it gifts you,” he confirms. “It allows you to be yourself.”
At 28 years old, Kyle still has a long career ahead of him. With five albums to his name already, and multiple award nominations, he is the keeper of a brightly burning musical flame – and he’s taking his audience along for the ride. “They underestimate their role in the music making,” he says, that wise, half-smile appearing again. “But the energy an audience brings, it contributes. There’s something about South African audiences and jazz. There’s something special about their vibe.”