It's ironic that South African jazz penetrated Western ears because of that country's expatriates, who fled in the '60s from utter repression. Its tentacles reached early into the European school of free jazz though the hands of pianist Chris McGregor and drummer Louis Moholo. Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim brought his very personal style through many changes, retaining a warm, swinging feel and a refreshing openness to excursions in outer sound. Trumpeter Hugh Masekela went full circle, giving birth to a jazzy concept of so- called "world music"; vocalist Miriam Makeba took her accessible sound straight onto the charts. And those are just the bigger names.
Now that apartheid is an artifact of the past, South African jazz has returned home for a major revival. There's no doubt that the nearly century-old tradition nurtures both a deep respect for the past and an eagerness to advance.
Leading the charge, building from roots both tribal and post-colonial, is multi- instrumentalist Zim Ngqawana , most frequently found playing saxophone. Zim's latest record, Vadzimu , takes its eponymous concept of "spirit" very seriously.
His contemporaries in the hard bop quintet known as Voice just released the second volume of its Quintet Legacy series: Songs For Our Grandchildren . (Interestingly enough, three fifths of this group overlap with Zim's ensemble, evidence of the collaborative spirit of jazz in today's South Africa.)
New Zealand expatriate Kevin Clark, who left South Africa three decades ago, never abandoned the styles that helped form his voice as a composer and instrumentalist. Once Upon A Song I Flew builds on these and a rather eclectic collection of world influences to yield a coherent, literate fusion.
Finally, a little indulgence. Shaluza Max, who won the award for Best Zulu Album at the 2003 South African Music Awards, says exactly what he means on Impilo , translating to "life." The tenor vocalist has an open, respectful approach to song which incorporates church music, gospel, and urban styles into a friendly, danceable whole.
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.