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Dennis Mpale: The Man Behind the Trumpet

Seton Hawkins By

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The late Dennis Mpale was one of South Africa's greatest trumpet players. Chronologically, he entered the picture shortly after Hugh Maskela and worked with artists from Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonas Gwangwa to Mackay Davashe and Kippie Moeketsi. Like many of the musicians of his generation, Mpale left South Africa to live in exile in London, not returning til the early 1990s.

The Man Behind the Trumpet is one part greatest hits, one part tribute album. Eight of the thirteen tracks are culled from the two albums Mpale made after returning to South Africa (two from 1994's Paying My Bills and six from 1997's Nothing But the Jam), and five tracks were written and performed in tribute to Mpale by his friends and his son.

All of the Mpale tunes fall more into the category of kwaito (a singularly South African urban hip-hop hybrid) than jazz. Standout tracks include the funky vibes/trumpet work of "Do Like Miles, the strong vocal chorus and trumpet interplay of "Still Paying My Bills, and the dark South African gospel groove of "Vovovo. Here one can hear why Mpale is so special—while he clearly has chops to spare, he prefers to impress with his highly thought-out and beautifully phrased solos, as well his ability to change the mood of his trumpet from a slurry, laid back tone ("Do Like Miles ) to crisper, more urgent lines ("Stokvela ). Most of these tracks are culled from Nothing But the Jam, the stronger of the two albums, featuring Mpale in collaboration with kwaito legend M'Du Masilela. Masilela's programming is not a "press play approach, and the backing beats and synths shift around frequently to keep the tunes interesting.

The five tribute tracks close out the album and provide a nice change of pace, ranging from the rocksteady-flavored "Blues for Mpale to the South African jazz waltz of "Song for Mpale. The trumpet playing on these tracks pays greater stylistic tribute to Hugh Masekla than Mpale (who reminds me of Clifford Brown), but it's still some excellent music-making.

The biggest problem with the album is its heavy reliance on one album for its tracks. While Nothing But the Jam is a great album, it's also commercially available, and this compilation takes nearly half of its tracks from that source. It would have been nice to hear Mpale's playing on some of the earlier albums by his own units, or Abdullah Ibrahim's or Jonas Gwangwa's groups. Doing so would have allowed us to hear him in more of a jazz context.

Nevertheless, this album holds up to repeated listens. Mpale's trumpet playing is stunning throughout, and this mixture of kwaito and jazz is one of the most convincing arguments for the kwaijazz style. However, listeners are strongly encouraged to check out Abdullah Ibrahim's Soweto and Jonas Gwangwa's Flowers of the Nation to get an even better sense of Mpale's range and abilities.

Track Listing: Paying my Bills; Do Like Miles; Stokvela; Upside Down; Nothing but the Jame; Die Toppie; Still Paying My Bills; Vovovo; Blues for Mpale; Urban Jazz; Dream On; Song for Mpale; My Hero

Personnel: Dennis Mpale: trumpet; M'Du Masilela: programming; P Moticoe: programming; Linda "Mpale" Oliphant: vocals; other personnel unlisted.

Title: The Man Behind the Trumpet | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Gallo Records


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