Zim Ngqawana has a penchant for naming records after himself. The South African saxophonist followed up his first record, 1998's Zimology, with Zimphonic Suites in 2001. Nothing wrong with a little creative word play, for sure, especially from a man who honestly has little interest in self-promotion or glory. He seems to be using these titles to formally integrate himself into the music. Maybe they sell records too... who knows. Who cares.
Now Vadzimu takes the same idea deep into Xhosa territory, emphasizing a word that means "spirit" or "ancestors." Nothing could be more descriptive of the music on the record. Zim Ngqawana's roots in tribal music and the South African tradition play equal roles with New World styles including bop, funk, the avant-garde, tango, son, and samba. He's never believed in provincialism, and that's one reason Vadzimu is a masterpiece.
That's never a word to be taken lightly, so some justification is clearly in order. Ngqawana composes music in suites, each with its own coherent thematic focus and style (or mix of styles). Four such suites appear on Vadzimu : "Satire," devoted to his South African roots; "Diaspora," drawing upon the New World branches of the African musical tree; "Liberation Suite," celebrating the joys of freedom and revelation; and three relatively dark Noctures which dwell in the wee hours of the night.
Zim's always looked toward an orchestral sound, which he accomplishes here with fourteen players, though you won't ever hear them all playing at once. His three solo piano nocturnes at the end occupy the low end of the spectrum, rumbling through "Umoya," slashing wildly through "Vadzimu," and coming to reconciliation on "Thula Sizwe." It's a nice change of pace from Zim's regular pianist, Andile Yenana, who appears elsewhere on the record and insistently combines a strong sense of lush South African vocal harmony, shifting blocks of chordal sound, and pulsing rhythmic cycles. Various combinations of horns, strings, and drums (in abundance) appear here and there to enrich texture and timbre.
A brief gust of pattering drums may lull you into tranquility on the opening track, but that's soon shattered with sharp, overblown vocal cries (followed by repeated shouts and group chanting). This is the past and the future: centuries old but somehow avant-garde at the same time. That leads into "Kubi," a lush and fertile backdrop for more melodic and restrained vocals, and the syncopated stomping mineworkers' dance on "Gumboot Dance"tap done South African style, recorded somewhere real close to the floor. The suite closes with a return: warm, uplifting slow swing with vocals.
The Diaspora suite offers the greatest mix and some of the most inspired music on the record. "Zanusi" hits New Orleans funk very lightly and from an oblique angle, connected by the leader's long flute lines. Then it's off to Cuba with richly layered percussion, authentic vocals, and lyrical flowing melodies from the brass. "Dirge" swings with perky energy, returning to the South African jazz theme that permeates the record.
Zim Ngqawana has taken this opportunity to combine compositional focus, an extended group concept, and creative improvisation. If you don't have an open mind to energy and cross-cultural fusions, don't waste your time with this record. Otherwise, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's the best recording that has come out of South Africa in recent years. If the international jazz community doesn't open its ears to the music of Zim Ngqawana... well, that's its loss.