In pianist Bokani Dyer's Neo Native we find a pact between the ideals of advancement and atavism. This rising star on the South African scene and international stage merges modernistic language with traditional streams with this malleable trio, creating a unique signature that's both indebted to his homeland's history and free of clichés.
That conjoined sensibility manifests immediately, as the title track opens the album and shifts from mournful streams with a traditionalist bent to dicier developments. The follow-up "Dollar Adagio," paying tribute to Abdullah Ibrahimis moored by Romy Brauteseth's bass riff, but that doesn't stop Dyer from cutting loose and soloing with positively pliant phrasing. It's a model for how solid grounding can support substantial growth. Then drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko launches and lights up "Fezile" with Afro-Latin flair, setting a foundation for a dynamic Dyer excursion; a joyous vocal introduction gives way to some neo-soul suggestions and ruminating Rhodes work on "Kgalagadi"; and patience wins out as "Waiting" plays its titular game, revealing gifts over time and offering space to Brauteseth's bass.
The album's centerpiecethe four-movement "African Piano Suite"follows those intriguing offerings and favors brevity. In less than eleven minutes, Dyer and company take us from a state of revelry on "Nguni" to trance-meets-dance vibes on "Xikwembu," and from the slinky ostinato of "Chikapa" to the reserved yet joyful environs of "Mutapa." Rather than dissect such a massive topic as African piano with lengthy discourse, Dyer's miniatures delve into the idea through direct engagement.
The final stretch sets off with some Tony Allen-worthy grooves on "Gono Afrobeat," shifts toward a reflective mood with "Light" and "Fola," and comes to a conclusion with "Oumou," a bonus track featuring guest Asmaa Hamzaoui's passionate vocals. Taken in total, all of this music makes the case that Bokani Dyer is well-versed in the piano traditions that surround him. But more importantly, Neo Native makes clear that he's not fenced in by any of them.