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South African Saliency: Reza Khota, Carlo Mombelli, Andrew Lilley, and Mandisi Dyantyis

Dan Bilawsky By

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As sure as the sun will shine on Chapman's Peak and the winds will sweep over Table Mountain, South Africa will continue to flourish and birth new music worthy of worldwide attention. The West may typically pay little to no mind to South African jazz and the artists who shape it, but that has yet to put a damper on the creative pursuits of that nation's brightest lights. Below, under observation, are four notable releases from South African-based musicians who've carved out their places in varied scenes and continue to draw notice at or near home. There's a good deal of overlap in terms of personnel, indicating a tight-knit community, yet each artist in the hot seat presents a singular vision that could not be mistaken for another's. Here's to hoping that their music makes an impact beyond the African continent.

Reza Khota
Liminal
Kujua Records
2018

The second leader date from this Johannesburg-born, Cape Town-based guitar slinger, following his quartet's transportive Transmutation (Self Produced, 2013), is also a true next-chapter affair. With the same personnel from Transmutation in place, this modernist is able to take the leap and operate further afield. His darkly intriguing lines occupy and access interjacent states that play true to the album's meaning.

Right from the start, with opener "Event Horizon," Khota makes clear that he operates between the spaces. Angular light play, brooding shadows, shifting sands of time, and a twisting of coherence all mark this work as unique. Tenor saxophonist Buddy Wells, bassist Shane Cooper, and drummer Jonno Sweetman prove to be a peer group that appreciates and delights at the opportunity to operate on the cusp, perfectly aligning with Khota's beliefs. Whether playing on mystery and suspense during "Dialectic," merging dreams and high drama with a rock-ish perspective on "Delhi Haze," finding place of self in uncharted territory on the trippy "Lost Is A Place," or tilting on a spiritual axis with "Diamond Mind," this crew manages to live for the moment without neglecting the long game.

Khota primarily focuses on his own music, but outside influence and inside talk each have a part to play, too. He honors the father of Ethio-jazz, vibraphonist-percussionist Mulate Astatke, with some static, brooding, funk psychedelia on that legend's "Yekatit." And he closes the album with "Ghosts," a collective improvisation that merges percussive art and paranoid states without a hitch. It would be wrong to say that Khota's imagination roams free on this absorbing album, but it most certainly runs far.

Carlo Mombelli
Angels And Demons
Instinct Aricaine
2018

Bassist Carlo Mombelli is something of a sage figure. As he approaches his 60th birthday, a time when many a musician has found their comfort zone and settled into it, he remains one of the most restlessly creative forces in South African jazz. Mombelli has worked with an international assortment of heavyweights that would make anybody envious—Egberto Gismonti, Samuel Blaser, Lee Konitz, Charlie Mariano, and Adrian Mears among them—and he's served as teacher and mentor to numerous others who've followed his lead. Joined by Sweetman on drums, Keenan Chas Ahrends on guitar, next-gen leading light Kyle Shepherd on piano, and a handful of guests, Mombelli makes good on his reputation as a serious seeker.

Preferring shorter pieces to lengthy excursions, Mombelli quickly finds his way in and out of myriad dimensions, typically in five minutes or less. "In Search Of The Holy Grail" blends minimalistic tides, drum 'n' bass vibes, wordless vocal allure (courtesy of Maria Mombelli), and modernistic guitar into one intriguing package; "The Ghost Of Norcia"—a two-part piece with a clean segue—plays as reedy sound art left to dissolve in a spectral realm; "The Ritual Of Memories" capitalizes on repetition and movement, creating a calm shimmer as the core band, enhanced by vocals and background horns, plays with ethereal grace; and "Reconciliation Hymn" comes on like a Radiohead tune with its harmonically cycling majesty.

While much of Mombelli's music proves moving without explanation, two pieces with specific dedications outdo the rest in terms of emotional impact. "Children of Aleppo," with pianist Peter Cartwright's ruminative and mournful piano setting the course, speaks with gravity to the horrors that have fallen on children as a result of man's play for power and greed, and "In The End We All Belong," dedicated to Mombelli's father, is both elegant and touching in its sweeping designs. If it's between the two titular sects, I'd have to say the angels take the day.

Andrew Lilley
Brother Gone
Self Produced
2018

Andrew Lilley is a prime mover and shaker on the performance and education scenes in Cape Town. The Berklee-trained pianist works on a number of avenues—he teaches at the University of Cape Town, scores films from time to time, and, obviously, tickles the keys—and his own music speaks to clarity of expression and directness. Of the four releases examined in this piece, his has the most centrist tendencies within the modern jazz universe.

Brother Gone, recorded a good nine years before its release, is an agreeable meeting of South Africans and Swedes. Lilley and drummer Kevin Gibson represent the hometown crowd while trumpeter Frederik Noren, saxophonists Johan Hörlen and Karl-Martin Almqvist, and bassists Martin Sjöstedt and Peter Olofsson account for the out-of-towners. But let's not separate these players. Truth be told, they all stand on common ground here. Opening with "Home Roots," a number equally indebted to South African soil and a Coltrane-ish stance, and springing further along with "Song For Bheki," nodding, of course, to the late Bheki Mseleku, it's clear that everybody is stylishly working out of the same playbook.

Lilley favors originals over familiar staples, with only a cover of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" (with a slight metric adjustment) coming from the canon. His "York Street," honoring the Big Apple, proves more introspective than the vibe emanating from the epicenter of jazz. "Epilogue" doesn't serve as an afterword of any sort, yet it remains in line with its core ideal by speaking to a sense of emotional resolution. And the title track, both giving deep consideration to the influential figures who've left us and referencing the very present Shorter by nodding to one of his nicknames, swings with positivity at a comfortable clip. It's a shame that it took so long for this music to appear, but it's a beautiful thing to soak it in now.

Mandisi Dyantyis
Somandla
Milestone Studios
2018

Trumpeter and vocalist Mandisi Dyantyis, born in Port Elizabeth in the early '80s and based in Cape Town today, has been a steady presence on the scene for well over a decade. Somandla, his debut, makes the case for a multi-faceted artistry with an impassioned outlook. Opening on the a cappella vocal layers of "Molweni," a number blending folk purity and a near-operatic strength, Dyantyis presents a mature and self-assured sound. But it's not just vocals that offer that face. The same confidence comes through on the slow and soulful "Olwethu," where his trumpet shares the spotlight with Wells' tenor. He's a serious double- threat and a talent worth knowing.

The prayerful "I Search," which happens to be one of two tracks featuring Lilley on piano, finds Dyantyis using his horn to look for answers. Elsewhere he's often the one giving them. The follow-up, "Because You Knew," moves from moody introspection to stirring heights and back again; "Ingoma Yenkedama," pairing Dyantis' sincere vocals with pianist Bokani Dyer's wistful chording, makes a deep impression on the heart; and the slow-groove R&B of "Molo! Sisi," grounded by Sean Sanby's bass and pianist Blake Hellaby's steady support, finds both of the leader's voices giving their all. Whether you speak the language or not, everything Dyantyis says—and plays—sings straight and true.

Tracks and Personnel

Liminal

Tracks: Event Horizon; Dialectic; Delhi Haze; Emergency; Lost Is A Place; Yekatit; Unearth; Diamond Mind; Ghosts.

Personnel: Reza Khota: guitar; Buddy Wells: tenor saxophone, flute; Shane Cooper: upright bass, electric bass, Fender Rhodes, synthesizers; Jonno Sweetman: drums.

Angels And Demons

Tracks: In Search Of The Holy Grail; Pulses In The Centre Of Silence; The Ghost Of Norcia; The Ghost Of Norcia—Part Two; The Ritual Of Memories; Like A Mouse In A Maze; The Spiral Staircase; Glissando; Reconciliation Hymn; Rewired; Children Of Aleppo; Athens; In The End We All Belong.

Personnel: Carlo Mombelli: electric bass, vocals; Keenan Chas Ahrends: guitar; Kyle Shepherd: piano; Jonno Sweetman: drums; Maria Mombelli: vocals, tenor saxophone; Janus Van Der Merwe: bass clarinet; Peter Cartwright: piano (6, 11); Susan Mouton: cello.

Brother Gone

Tracks: Home Roots; Song For Bheki; Dedication; York Street; Third Life; Footprints; Epilogue; Brother Gone; Dr. Yes.

Personnel: Andrew Lilley: piano; Frederik Noren: trumpet, flugelhorn; Johan Hörlen; alto saxophone, soprano saxophone; Karl-Martin Almqvist: tenor saxophone; Martin Sjöstedt: bass (1-7, 9); Peter Olofsson: bass (8); Kevin Gibson: drums.

Somandla

Tracks: Molweni; Kuse Kude; Inzingo; Olwethu; I Search; Because You Knew; Esazalwa Sinje; Ingoma Yenkedama; Somandla; Molo! Sisi; Ndimthanda; Kode Kube Nini; My Grandmother's Dance.

Personnel: Mandisi Dyantyis: trumpet, vocals; Buddy Wells: tenor saxophone; Blake Hellaby: piano (3, 4, 10, 11, 13); Sean Sanby: acoustic bass; Lumanyano Unity Mzi: drums; Andrew Lilley: piano (5, 6); Bokani Dyer: piano (2, 8, 9, 12).

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