Trevor Noah, the South African comedian announced as the new host of the Daily Show. Photo: Justin Barlow/Gallo Images/Getty Images for MTV
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Why outsiders like John Oliver and Trevor Noah are taking over American late night TV

South African Trevor Noah, the newly-announced host of The Daily Show, joins Brits John Oliver and James Corden in the US’s coveted late-night slots.

The internet exploded on Monday morning with explainers of everything you – yes, you – need to know about Trevor Noah, the 31-year-old South African comic newly anointed as Jon Stewart’s successor. Considering that the focus of Noah’s three Daily Show appearances so far, where he played the part of the cosmopolitan mocking American ignorance of everything outside of our own borders, this is somewhat fitting. Noah is a star in his own country (here he is gracing the cover of South African GQ last October), where he hosted his own satirical news show, Tonight with Trevor Noah, a few years ago. But for most Americans (myself included), Noah is a virtual unknown, a young comedian who made his first appearance on The Daily Show just last December.

Yes, it’s a little disappointing that there is still no female late-night US TV host in 2015. (For that we’ll have to wait for Samantha Bee’s as-yet-unnamed Daily Show doppelganger to premiere on TBS later this year.) “We talked to women. We talked to men. We found in Trevor the best person for the job,” Comedy Central president Michelle Ganeless told the New York Times. With Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show at 11:30, Comedy Central will soon have two fake news shows hosted by black men – that’s two more than a year ago, but still one fewer than the number of white men named “James” on network late-night.

The most notable aspect of Noah’s background, though, might be something he shares with another Daily Show-correspondent turned host: he isn’t American. With John Oliver on HBO, the Brit James Corden on CBS’s Late Late Show, and now Noah, foreigners are taking over our late night desks. On both The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight, John Oliver’s Britishness has been a crucial part of his comedy, letting him shake his head at American injustice with the baffled outrage of an outsider instead of the smug righteousness of one of our own. Oliver has also given his show a more international scope, focusing attention on foreign elections and weird German scandals about Fanta.

However much they may have wanted to, the Comedy Central execs couldn’t get Oliver away from his cushy HBO gig. But as the mixed-race child of a Xhosa mother and Swiss-German father growing up under apartheid, Noah brings his own outsider perspective. “I was born a crime,” he says often in interviews and stand-up acts, where he jokes about confounding America’s racial categories, being mistaken for Mexican, and learning to speak German with a “distinctly Hitler-ish” accent.

Noah’s Daily Show appearances so far have been amusing but not particularly inspired, relying too much on Stewart’s ignorant American shtick. What made Jon Stewart so essential a decade ago and so stale in recent years has been his endless skewering of Fox News, a target that always deserving of scorn but not always worth the effort. As Slate’s Willa Paskin wrote in February, “Stewart’s Daily Show and its progeny have done their job almost too well. Cable news carries on – ideological, craven, and absurd as ever, but also exposed.” What gives me the most hope is that Noah isn’t just a newcomer to America – he’s a newcomer to American cable news. I’m not sure what we can expect from his political coverage; at this point, he probably doesn’t know himself. But I doubt it will be more of the same, and that’s something to celebrate. 

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State