Winston Mankunku and Mike Perry: Jika (1996)
Jika, the first full-fledged collaboration bewteen South African saxophonist Mankunku and keyboard player Mike Perry, is an unqualified success. As an authentic statement, this record demands that you accept it on its own terms. That's not difficult, given the understated, simmering pulse that runs throughoutand the soaring, open melodies which give it shape. But on the other hand, it's equally important not to impose a jazz-purist sensibility on this recording, because the rich overtones of the South African tradition play a vitally important role.
The opener, "Wajikeleza," illustrates the seeming dichotomy of traditions that defines Jika. The title is a shorthand reference to a Xhosa idiom, which in its extended form communicates a blunt rebuttal to the intolerant righteousness of apartheid. Unless you read the liner notes, you might not guess this hidden meaning (and that's exactly what the musicians relied upon to get the recording past the censors in Pretoria). The tune has a warm, celebratory feel. Relatively simple harmonies, directly stated, revolve in a cyclical fashion around the root. On top of this foundation, maintained with taste by Perry and the rhythm section, floats a joyful, sing-song melody that instantly elevates the mood.
As the record progresses, it continues to explore this folksy, root-oriented sound. At times swinging lightly, at others touching the edges of funk, this quartet never overstates itself. The softest moment on Jika comes with "Tula Sana," the fifth tune. It bears a superficial resemblance to what Americans might dismiss as smooth jazz, but again that's an imposition which does not belong. Take the music on its own terms. The title translates to "hush belovedeverything will be all right," and it's that lullaby aura that gives the relaxed, laid back orchestration its smoothness before it eases into an easy shuffle.
Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, this record is brief. But it's a remarkably positive effort from a very dark period in South African history (1986), offering hope as a brilliant torch for the future. Regardless of your cultural standing, Jika offers the kind of understated, soft energy that resonates deep within.
Track Listing: Wajikeleza; Crossroads Crossroads; That Man There; Yho! Yho!; Tula Sana; Asiyapo; Ntyilo Ntyilo; Mikes Mood; I Wish I Knew.
Personnel: Winston Mankunku Ngozi: tenor saxophone and vocals; Mike Perry: Yamaha Grand and Yama CP70; Richard Pickett: drums; Mike Campbell: bass.