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.
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.
Visit Zim Ngqawana on the web.
This recording is available from One World South Africa.
Quintet Legacy Vol. 2: Songs For Our Grandchildren
Holding true to the identity established on Volume 1 of this series, the South African bop quintet known as Voice has chosen to stick to material that represents their country's jazz legacy on Volume 2: Songs For Our Grandchildren. You wouldn't necessarily appreciate that fact on first listen, given this group's overwhelming literacy in the world jazz tradition. But maybe that's the point: it doesn't really matter what country you come from in the end. Or does it?
Two compositions by the late Kippie Moeketsi and guitarist Allen Kwela round out a set of originals from the crew, spanning the range from a deliberate, paced ballad ("I Remember Billy") to an off-kilter Monkish romp ("Scullery Department") to zippy hard bop ("Syd's Dilemma"). Each tune most definitely has its own flavor.
"Ida," dedicated to saxophonist Sydney Mnisi's mother, starts out languid and lyrical, gradually moving into a lightly bossa-tinged beat. The horny head is very brief, leaving almost the entire tune open to exploration. Marcus Wyatt's faltering flugelhorn solo tells a story of melancholy loss, floating at mid-tempo from phrase to phrase. Mnisi's second solo, on soprano, endows the tune with a forward-looking edge, singing birdlike over the changes and heading toward resolution.
The optimistic "Days Mandulo" immediately hits with a punchy edge, driven by harmonized horns toward a swinging conclusion. Wyatt works his horn for all it's worth when he gets to the front, stretching the beat like a rubber band and riding roughshod along rippling bebop lines. But more than showcasing any particular player, this tune emphasizes a group identity. These musicians listen and respond, keeping it tight through the changes.
Bassist Herbie Tsoaeli's "Children in the Rain" has the most readily identifiable South African flavor of any piece on the record. His descending lines provide as much structure as anchor, serving as a complement to pianist Andile Yenana's alternating Tyner-ish chords. Yenana, more than any other player here, has his ears attuned to the vocal harmonies, township rhythms, and cyclical flow of his country's music. Those features may be sublimated in this setting, but subtlety is usually a mark of maturity.
Whatever their roots, the members of Voice can hold their own against any bop quintet today. They have the confidence, the intuition, and the flexibility to communicate articulately, whatever the style.
Once Upon A Song I Flew
So-called "world jazz" never found as international a traveler as Kevin Clark. His independently- released record Once Upon A Song I Flew takes its title to heart in both transcontinental and transcendental senses. Clark left South Africa three decades ago for New Zealand, but he never abandoned his roots. In the interim, he has traveled and absorbed styles from South America and the Caribbean. All that translates into a gentle marriage between discovery and tradition, realized here on this (mostly) quintet (mostly) acoustic (mostly) jazz set.
All that mostly business refers to the open-ended nature of the project. Clark plays piano, flugelhorn, and trumpet, so his voice is not always easy to pin down. The rest of his core crew apparently Kiwisincludes drummer Maurice Philips, saxophonist Colin Hemmingsen, percussionist Lance Philip, and either electric bassist Tim Robertson or acoustic bassist Paul Dyne. While the jazz side of the record tends toward a warm, soft-edged bop, it has its moments of intensity as well.
"Township Talk" most directly illustrates the South African influence, realized through the bouncy cyclical harmonies of so-called "township jazz" or mbaqanga. The piece takes advantage of a lilting soprano melody and regular returns to the upbeat refrain. Clark implies a non- linear rhythmic edge through his blocky chording, reinforced by Philip's oblique, Cuban-inspired accents. "Samba de Praia" delves into the Brazilian side of the diaspora, riding lightly over cymbal and bell rhythms. Without pretense or ambition, the samba brings cultures together quite elegantly.
Other tunes include the meditative, neoclassical "Raganometry" (aptly named, given its sound and Eastern instrumentation); a couple of straight-ahead jazz tunes ("Scroggin's Waltz" and the title track, which adds vocalist Robin McLennan to marginal benefit); plus excursions into Celtic, Caribbean, and Arabic traditions. But from the beginning to the end, South Africa remains the dominant inspiration in tone, style, and instrumentation. (Listen for the traditional pennywhistle sound on "Kapiti Kwela," for example.)
Despite the fact that Once Upon A Song I Flew never made it onto an official record label, the Kiwis are still very excited about itthe record won this year's New Zealand Jazz Music Award. That is but a parenthetical reason to check out one man's truly global vision, realized with the help of a vibrant and sympathetic group of like-minded artists.
Contact Kevin Clark: Tel(04)233 8202, 56 Steyne Avenue, Plimmerton, New Zealand. Email: email@example.com.
This disc is available from www.smokecds.com .
Chances are you won't understand too many of the lyrics on Impilo. And given it's a vocal album, that's certainly something to bear in mind. But Zulu is a beautiful, spiritual, flowing language, and with a few tips from the liner notes you'll quite likely find yourself singing along with Max. All said, Impilo has broad, universal appeal.
Shaluza Max (whose last name is Mntambo) has been singing ever since he can remember, going professional well before he turned 20 and traveling through jazz, contemporary, and urban styles with ease. He's performed with his own bands and alongside some of the biggest stars in the active South African music world. Three years ago he put out his first solo record, Kusile ("Dawn"), and quite frankly, it was a hit. Impilo ("Life") has a certain maturity and confidence that time and recognition have imparted on the singer.