Since giving up the day job as a fitter in a metals company in 1988 to dedicate himself to jazz; saxophonist Sydney Ace Mnisi has made a name for himself in South Africa, playing with pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and trumpeter Hugh Masekela. That he remains little known beyond African shores is not entirely surprising, given that 20 Years Celebration
is not, as you might be forgiven for thinking, a greatest hits compilation, but his very first outing as leader. On the strength of this recording, Mnisi's relative anonymity abroad may well soon change.
The opener "It's about Time" boasts a catchy melody and is a vehicle for Mnisi's soprano sax. After a brief piano break from pianist Andile Yenana, Mnisi launches into a searching solo, which owes much to John Coltrane, or then again perhaps Branford Marsalis.
Mnisi cites saxophonist Sonny Rollins as one of his main influences, and on the melodic "Courtyard," the eternal influence of Rollins is clear, as Mnisi switches to tenor. His warm, slightly rasping tenor sound and inventive playing is supported by drummer Clement Benny's skipping brushes.
A meditative mood colors the beginning of "Kwela Gontsana," dedicated to guitarist Allen Kwela and drummer/percussionist Lulu Gontsana, pivotal figures in African jazz, who passed away in 2006 and 2005 respectively. Pianist Yenana takes an unhurried solo, pronouncing each note and adding a short run here and there. The simmering rhythm section seems on the verge of taking off on several occasions, and this expectation creates a tension in the music. In the end, it is Mnisi who cuts loose on soprano and pushes his sax to the limit, although he is clearly more comfortable in the middle range of this instrument.
Mnisi pens a good tune, and it is refreshing to hear a debut of all original music. A simple but swinging bass groove kicks off "Grooving in Hell," and Mnisi and pianist Yenana take turns to solo at length. Mnisi returns to court the upbeat melody briefly and the song ends with a two-note exclamation.
The story-telling style of Mnisi, so redolent of Rollins, is heard in his playing on "Lost a few Times." Again, piano and sax trade solos, but in truth, Yenana's meandering solo never really finds its way and lacks momentum. Mnisi in turn, builds a solo which rips and snarls before tapering out gently.
Mnisi's stretches out on "Afro" and his spacey attack is most Coltrane-like in its wild abandon. On "Skuka," reverting to tenor, his voice displays itself more clearly and there is plenty of fire here too. "Blues Tembisa" rounds off the set in a blissful walking groove, with nice playing from all.
At 28, Mnisi jacked in his job to learn to play the sax, taking his savings and enrolling in Fuba Music Academy. That's almost the stuff of legend, and every reason to celebrate. Let's hope he doesn't follow the same fate as Allen Kwela, who recorded only one album as leader in a forty-year career.