From its very first notes, pianist Andile Yenana's debut record flows with song. The opener, "Wicked Whispers" (a highly ironic title), introduces all four members of his quartet in a lyrical chorus soaring above gentle swing. Yenana's stated intent with this record is to fuse the sonorities of jazz with the culture and ritual of South Africa. His musical heroes (Winston Mankunku, Abdullah Ibrahim, Chris McGregor, Hugh Masekela, and Zim Ngqawana) represent the high points of this sort of cross-cultural fertilization, and he does them justice on We Used To Dance.
Yenana's efforts as Zim Ngqawana's pianist of choice showcased his abilities to keep a group grounded, and one might have expected from this earlier work that he would invade and dwell in the space opened up by McCoy Tyner. That he does with fluency and elegance, but We Used To Dance features an equal abundance of surprises.
Listening to this record, one has the sense that there simply wasn't enough time for Yenana to express all he had to say. The tunes cover a wide range of tone and style, from the Bill Evans-meets-gospel sound of "No Lights" to the intimate rhythmic textures of "Mhlekazi's Dance" and the carefree swing of Dudu Pukwana's "Blues for Nick." Influences from Herbie Hancock and Randy Weston (as well as the obvious antecedent, Abdullah Ibrahim) appear scattered throughout.
Feya Faku's work on trumpet and flugelhorn display a versatility and restraint that emphasizes color over flash, melody over showmanshipand his clarity of vision serves Yenana's ensemble sound well. The pianist does well within solo and trio contexts, but when he brings in the horns he enables a richness of texture and warmth only possible through human breath.
The fact that an articulate musician like Andile Yenana could turn out a record with this degree of cohesion should come as little surprise to those who are familiar with his approach to music. When you listen closely to his piano playing, you can pick up vocalizations of the melody, drawing attention to his unstated contention that the human voice is the beginning and the end of sound.
For Yenana, every note on the keyboard is a swirl in the air, an exclamation of joi d'vivre. While much of this material may be downtempo, that fact does not mean it lacks energy. We Used To Dance may at times convey melancholy, but never does it lose its sense of celebration. Some times it takes music like this to remind us why we're alive.
Personnel: Andile Yenana: piano, vocals; Feya Faku: trumpet, flugelhorn, vocals;
Sydney Mnisi: saxophone, trombone, vocals; Kevin Gibson: bass, drums;
Herbie Tsoaeli: bass; Morabo Morojele: drums.