Nduduzo Makhathini – Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds (Blue Note 003157502. CD Review by Jon Turney)
Among a clutch of notable youngish South African pianists, Kyle Shepherd and Bokani Dyer have both made their mark outside the country. Now their compatriot Ndudozo Makhathini goes one better, perhaps, by following a lauded series of recordings released there with his debut for Blue Note.
Shepherd and Dyer have mainly given us trio work, but Makhathini’s offering is a multi-horn affair, including US altoist Logan Richardson along with a group of excellent SA musicians with New York connections – tenor saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, trumpeter Ndabo Zulu, bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell Le Pere, drummer Ayanda Sikade, and percussionist Gontse Makhene.
It’s a powerful ensemble that brings a focussed energy to Makhathini’s compositions. His 11 pieces explore aspects of healing (his second profession) and spirituality, paying himage to ancestral stories of unseen worlds and gospel music as well as his jazz inspirations, Bheki Mseleku, McCoy Tyner and Coltrane. The latter’s ecstatic tendency dominates the music, which makes regular use of the slow-building solos lightly tethered by repeated rhythm figures that typify spiritual jazz.
That means quite a few tracks on this generously proportioned album are reaching for maximum intensity before their work is done, but most attain it with time to spare. This is spiritual-jazz-meets post-bop of a pretty high order. Makhathini, who also cites Andrew Hill and Don Pullen as influences, is a piano master, as interested in the rhythmic and percussive possibilities of the instrument as in chordal riches. You can hear the other expected South African influences, too – strains of his one-time employer Zim Ngqawana, of Abdullah Ibrahim, and the late-lamented Moses Molelekwa.
Voices enhance the ensemble, too. Makhathini’s wife Omagugu, a powerful performer in her own right, contributes a hypnotic vocal incantation on the opener Yehlisan’uMoya. Singer Asanda Msaki offers a more contemplative lyric on Beneath the Earth, which follows the limpid, hymnal Saziwa Nguwe. The Naima-like Isithunywa evokes one of Richardson’s best reflections. These cooler interludes provide contrast for the mostly longer, mostly more urgently driven pieces that make up the bulk of the tracks, full of highly charged soloing from the entire band. The set as a whole is nicely varied, though, and is clearly governed by a unified musical vision: a persuasive synthesis of contemporary US and South African sounds. As it fades out over Makhathini’s own voice on the brief final track you are left feeling he’s telling us he has still more to say. Overall, it’s a richly realised project that should bring him the larger international audience he deserves.
Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol. jonturney.co.uk. Twitter: @jonWturney