South African born pianist and composer Afrika Mkhize is a name we had all better get used to. “Rain Dancer” is his long awaited debut album, and on this evidence we are going to be hearing much more from this incredible musician in the years to come. Having spent a number of years residing in Paris, it is perhaps no surprise that whilst his music does have its roots firmly planted in the African jazz tradition, this is very much a European sounding album, bringing together the best of both worlds in a stunning way. “Jazz is truth” says Mkhize, “It’s pure emotion, it’s like taking a knife and cutting out your heart and saying ‘Here it is, look at me, this is me'”. It is indeed a compelling originality that truly shines in Mkhaze’s playing, teamed with a flowing warmth and life-affirming beauty. “Being able to take your experiences during the course of the day”, the pianist continues, “then express them that evening at a gig, that’s jazz! You can’t just play it, it has to be lived”. It’s not often as a listener one feels immediately drawn, not just to the music, but also to the musician himself. Yet with Mkhize I do, pulled in on a wave of emotional pleasure emanating from the man and his music.
Mkhize represents the second generation of jazz mastery, being the son of legendary pianist and producer Themba Mkhize. Having started playing the piano at the age of six, when he turned eleven he was enrolled at Funda Centre Music school, Soweto to study classical piano. At fifteen he was accepted into the National School for the Arts, and four years later enrolled at Pretoria Technikon to pursue his interest in jazz composition and arranging. He has since gone on to perform with many notable artists including Zim Ngqawane, Dorothy Masuka, Papa Noel, Khaya Mahlangu and Oliver Mtukudzi. Having won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz, 2012, Mkhize has also scored full big band arrangements, most notably a recent project honouring his favourite pianist, the late Bheki Mseleku. His latest project finds him touring and performing with Banz Oester and The Rainmakers. It is, along with Mkhize’s own debut recording, this Swiss/South African collaboration that will surely turn many jazz heads in 2016, with an album set for release early in the year.
“Rain Dancer” features all original compositions, apart from the last track- Bheki Mseleku’s “Beauty of Sunrise”. Mseleku has obviously played a pivotal role in Mkhize’s style of playing, and this tune is a fitting final track to what is a wonderful session of warm, honest and heartfelt music making. The album opens with “Be Still”. The pianist has a style that although rooted in the past, is utterly contemporary and remarkably original. His use of acoustic piano mixed with keyboards is a revelation, with this opening track singing out with pure unadulterated class. The quality of the melodic writing, along with the sax/flute arrangements and the incredibly skillful soloing marks this out not just as possibly the track of the album, but also as one of the most magnificent tunes you will hear from anyone in the world of jazz. An instant classic. The highly engaging “South Coast” begins with a blues tinged piano, driven on by some great drumming before the African rhythms kick in with style. There’s so much depth and substance to this music, with Mkhize’s soloing being on a different level to most musicians I’ve heard in recent times. It’s just so filled with joy it is truly invigorating to hear. The warmth that permeates through the music continues on “Untitled Maracatu”, a softer tune, with Rhodes-like keys and strings adding a lush yet subtle sincerity to the music. African/European themes mix beautifully on “Rainmakers”, with the gospel/blues hued piano giving rise to sumptuous melodies and rhythmic patterns that dance with delight. The music screams I’m alive! – let’s celebrate the sun rising, let’s sing from our hearts, let’s embrace all things good and bad as part of our journey and do the very best we can as human beings. The short, sweet and simply stunning “Unlike Before” leads nicely into “South Coast Reprise” before “Xhensa” takes us into its warm embrace, offering much and delivering even more. “Ode to B” is a solo piano piece that just about sums up the passion and integrity with which Mkhize plays.
Incredibly enjoyable, “Rain Dancer” is an album to open your heart to, an album rich in the complexities and diversities of life and the human spirit. Afrika Mkhize successfully and skilfully blends multi-cultural musical influences, taking all the ingredients and mixing them into one exquisitely delightful dish. The path he walks shines brightly with a musical vision and empathy that leaves a lasting impression on this listener. May his journey continue to be bold and rewarding.