Nduduzo Makhathini ‘Listening to the Ground’ CD/Dig (Gundu Entertainment) 4/5

nduduzo-makhathiniIn 2014 Jazzman Records brought contemporary South African Jazz to a wider audience through the release of Tumi Mogorosi’s Project Elo album.
This album introduced me to the talents of some fascinating musicians, including Nduduzo Makhathini, who helped produce the set.
Fast forward a year to an interview Nat Birchall gave to the Band on the Wall website in which he gave props to a number of South African musicians including Nduduzo Makhathini. Being a curious sort I did some research; just at the right time it seems as ‘Listening to the Ground’ (his third album) had just been released.
Nduduzo won Standard Bank Young Jazz Artist for 2015. As a young musician he played with the likes of Zim Ngqawana and Feya Faku, artists with little profile outside of South Africa, but legends in their own scene. Other influences stylistically are Bheki Mseleku and McCoy Tyner.
His musical journey is a spiritual one. At the age of 13 he received the gift of healing from his ancestors, and in early adulthood determined to use this gift through his music.
‘Listening to the Ground’ is a two-disc set comprising 16 songs in total. The core group comprises Nduduzo (piano), Magne Thormosæter (double bass), Ayanda Sikade (drums) and Karl-Martin Almqvist (tenor/soprano sax and flute). There are also contributions from Robin Fassie Kock (trumpet and flugelhorn), Sophie Ribstein (harp), El Hadj Ngari Ndong and Mabaleng Moholo (percussion), choir and Nduduzo’s wife, Omagugu, on vocals.

South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Senegal and France are represented musically.

The mix of instruments is bound to draw comparisons to Matthew Halsall’s work and whilst it’s true that they both create broad, evocative soundscapes, the results are quite different.

Where this album is at its best is where the mood is most overtly spiritual. The first CD starts with ‘Same Mother’, a track with a brooding opening before throwing itself in to a sweet mid-tempo showcase of the band’s, and in particular Nduduzo’s, chops.

CD one ends with probably my favourite track, ‘Thokoza’, the Zulu word for Rejoice. This is an invocation to the ancestors through a blissful mix of choir, swirling harp, percussion alongside piano and sax.

The closest to late period Coltrane comes in ‘Supreme Light’, the opener on the second CD. There is a strong interplay between Nduduzo and Karl-Martin, although I can’t help but feel that the tune had more energy in it than the recording delivers. One to hear live I think.

‘Miss New Day’ is an uplifting track, which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Strata East release.

The rest of the album is not quite as memorable, although it’s pleasant enough. There are a number of fairly straight vocal tracks, the best of which is ‘Rejoice’. There are also a couple of blues and tracks influenced by Nduduzo’s time in Nigeria. None of these really captures the imagination as well as the tunes I have highlighted.

Here’s hoping that a wider worldwide audience gets to hear his music.

Andy Hazell

Bob Gluck ‘Infinite Spirit: Revisiting Music of the Mwandishi Band’ (FMR) 3/5

bob-gluckThe inspiration for Infinite Spirit emerged from pianist Gluck’s conversations with band members whilst writing “You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and The Mwandishi Band”. Bringing together two key original band members; Billy Hart on drums and Eddie Henderson on trumpet, along with Christopher Dean Sullivan on bass, they join Gluck, who plays acoustic piano and electronics throughout the album, for what is a new exploration of a selection of Mwandishi tunes, rather than just a modern day take on what has been before. Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi Band was an innovative and forward thinking jazz ensemble from the late 60’s, early 70’s, a band that perhaps in some circles was overlooked a little at the time, compared to other musical innovators of that time. In the spirit of the original music, the quartet perform new interpretations of Hancock’s “Sleeping Giant” and “You’ll Know When You Get There”, Maupin’s “Quasar” and “Water Torture”, Gluck’s “Sideways” and the Sullivan composition “Spirit Unleashed”.
It is indeed that searching spirit that inspires some great collaborative music throughout this album. Often conversational, questioning and textural, there are a plentitude of robust grooves and melodic lyricism on offer. Creative improvisations abound, with Gluck’s inventive piano playing and Henderson’s astute trumpet playing both being a high point throughout. The music evolves as it is performed, allowing all four musicians to play an important role in their own inimitable way. The album opens in pensive mood, with Billy Hart slowly but surely laying the foundation for “Sleeping Giant” to develop. Sprawling and spiralling acoustic piano blends beautifully with Henderson’s crisp, exploratory horn. Evident throughout the session is the reflective interplay and searching nature of the music. “You’ll Know When You Get There” is the perfect example of how tuned into each other these guys are as an acoustic quartet. It’s such a good sound. At this point however, I have to say I have a pretty serious gripe with the music I’m listening to. For me personally, I feel that the insertion of Gluck’s electronics actually detract from the music being performed, rather than adding to it. Don’t get me wrong, there are instances where it works well, as on the intro to “You’ll Know When You Get There”, which offers up a creative and rewarding piece of interplay between Hart’s excellent drumming and Gluck’s electronics. But overall, especially when layered over the top of the whole quartet, it just doesn’t work. I actually find it becomes tiresome and annoying. Many listeners may feel differently, and I for one love my twiddly bits in all forms of music, but I’m sorry to say that for me, on this album, the electronics do not do justice to the balance and warmth of the rest of the music, the resulting effect on my ears being to dub them as “twiddly bits”. Back to the positives though, as the band work their way through “Sideways/Quasar” which once again highlights Billy Hart’s incredibly sensitive and textural drumming, before the tune builds in strength with its graceful, luscious, improvisational feel. “Spirit Unleashed” is a new tune by bassist Sullivan that opens with a virtuosic bass solo, juxtaposed with Gluck’s electronic percolations. There’s a great pulse to this tune as the melody criss crosses with a diversity that’s sums up well just what this band are about. The album closes with “Water Torture”, with its catchy yet off-kilter melody allowing the soloists to stretch and discover new directions.

“Infinite Spirit” is a worthy and enjoyable revisiting of the music of the Mwandishi Band. It gives the listener plenty to contemplate, with its free spirited, excellent performances from all the musicians involved. Ultimately it will perhaps be of more interest to Mwandishi Band devotees, but in 2016 it could also act as a great introduction to the band’s music for new listeners. And depending on your point of view in regard to the electronics element of the album, it’s either a classic or annoyingly flawed… Why not have a listen and make up your own mind.

Mike Gates