Nduduzo Makhathini ‘In The Spirit of Ntu’ 2LP/CD (Blue Note Africa) 5/5

This album is something of a personal and cultural landmark for South African pianist, healer and educator Nduduzo Makhathini, as well as being his tenth studio album and the second release for Blue Note records it’s also the first issue on a new imprint, Blue Note Africa; a collaboration between the historic label and Universal Music Africa which aims to facilitate the ‘cultural exchange of ideas that transcend borders’. It’s fitting that an artist like Makhathini should be the label’s first release as he draws parallels between the birth of US jazz in ‘speaking out against inequality’ and the South African jazz scene ‘who’s backdrop was also one of inequality’. The album picks up on themes of African spirituality explored on his previous Blue Note album Modes of Communication: Letters From The Underworld, in which he used the idea of music as a ‘sonic letter’ to commune with ancestors both musical and spiritual. The Spirit of Ntu, goes deeper still in exploring the zone between the physical world and the spiritual world, it’s an attempt to achieve harmony as some kind of vital life force. Music really is a way of being for Makhathini, it’s not an add on, it’s his essence. He describes on his part ‘a total surrender and deep listening to a universe in tune with the cosmos’. The scope and ambition of this music really is something else.

On the album, Makhathini pays homage to musical ancestors including John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner as well as Abdullah Ibrahim and his personal mentor Bheki Mseleku. Their sounds are absorbed into his music as echoes, shadows and reflections, they are with us but the music he and the band create is contemporary and very much of the African diaspora as it flows from the sound of one continent to another. It’s a beautifully harmonised band with Linda Sikhakhane (sax) Robin Fassie Kock (trumpet) Dylan Tabisher (vibes) Stephen de Souza (bass) Dane Paris (drums) and guest vocalists Anna Widauer and Omagugu with Jaleel Shaw (sax).

‘Unonkanyambo’ gets the album moving, Makhathini’s undulating piano and Makhene’s percussion set up a vital counterpoint with a horn arrangement that cruises in parallel. Three motors run this tune before the pattern is broken as the piano cuts in with a jarringly low undertow. The tune’s playfully dynamic energy is drawn from dramatically different sources but somehow pulls in unison.

‘Nyonini Le’ has a transcendent finesse which entwines Makhene’s percussive excitement as Makhathini reanimates Monk’s angular and tumbling piano tones while simultaneously making the sound his own in a dream-like fusion.

There’s a processional nature to ‘Re-Amanthambo Feat. Anna Widauer’ it appears to be a plea from the spirit world to the living, ‘caught in the haze, caught in the dark, my eyes can see the spark that might reignite my heart’. The song blends a deeply soulful vocal with an Afro refrain and some stunning improvisation from the soprano, trumpet and vibes. They are at one.

‘Senze’ Nina’ is released as a single; it brings a harder, more brittle edge to the piano and the song incorporates a yearning Coltrane like sax. Makhathini talks about discovering A Love Supreme as a youngster in his school’s library and his fascination with Coltrane’s prayer on the sleeve notes. He’s carried some of that with him here and pulled the sound of two continents together in the process. The record closes with ‘Ntu’ which forms a continuum with the previous tune. There’s a tentative shifting energy to it and some jarring tonal juxtapositions. Conflicted emotions occupy the same space before a resolution brings harmony and peace.

‘In The Spirit of Ntu’ is surely proof that the creator does indeed have a master plan.

James Read