Pianist and composer Nduduzo Makhathini, from South Africa, tours Europe with a special trio on the heels of two successful album recordings on Blue Note Records, over the past few years.
Blue Note Records has dedicated an interest in bridging or rather uniting American jazz and African jazz musicians since the 1950s, while the best known recording sessions are from the early 1960s such as the Nigerian Solomon Ilori and his Afro-Drum Ensemble (1963 & 1964), combined with fully American jazz groups paying tribute to Africa as in Horace Parlon’s “Home is Africa” (1963), McCoy Tyner’s “The Man from Tanganyika” (1967) and many, many more.
This continues into the contemporary scene with Lionel Loueke, and a newer star, Nduduzo Makhathini, who has two acclaimed albums released on Blue Note: “Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds” (2020), and “In the Spirit of Ntu” (2022). Both of these are named with the intention to explain his motivation-communing with earthly spirits in his music.
Both albums are cerebral and reflective sessions with the fast “talking” African drums conversing with a modern jazz unit while aiming at times to cross the soulful world of Marvin Gaye and spiritual-minded Pharoah Sanders; Makhathini contributes to vocals as a soloist or in chorus, and there are a couple of tracks with women vocalists, and these are highlights for a newer Afro-soul, especially with the celestial compatriot Simphiwe Dana, or on the stunning ballad “Re-Amathambo” which has the deepest imprint, sung by an Austrian, Anna Widauer.
Nduduzo Makhathini comes to the table with a list of influences from South Africa, who are unmatched in their unique contributions to jazz and popular music, including pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (originally known as Dollar Brand), vocalist Miriam Makeba, and trumpeter Hugh Masekela. So Makhathini is following in the legacy of these names, and he does so with respect. But he also does so with more ambition, by combining a more forward-looking approach within his compositions, while on the other hand, seeking to recall the lost roots of African civilization.
Makhathini (born 1982) has also released “The Blues of a Zulu Spirit” (2021) as an EP, and this one reveals his own ancestral lineage in Southern Africa. He earned a diploma in Jazz Piano from Durban University of Technology (2005) and a Ph.D. in music from the University of Stellenbosch (received recently in 2023). With such degrees, he is also an active educator and researcher as Head of the Music Department at Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape.
Makhathini has explained in many of his interviews that among his most important influences is the pianist McCoy Tyner, who was part of John Coltrane’s quartet from 1960-1965 thus for those representing Coltrane’s legacy as a leader, including “My Favorite Things” (1961), and “A Love Supreme” (1964). And so, his special trio by including Francisco Mela on drums, brings him as close as possible to his icon, as Mela joined McCoy Tyner’s trio in 2009 (essentially for tours).
Francisco Mela is a drummer and percussionist, originally from Cuba, as Afro-Cubano he is best for Makathini’s multiple directions. The trio also includes Zwelakhe-Duma Bell Le Pere on bass, born in South Africa (an Afrikaner), but raised in New Haven (New England), United States. He is also the bassist on “Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds,” most notably.
Selected shows in January & February in Europe are listed below.
Jan. 30–Jazz Dock, Prague, Czech Republic
Jan. 31–Cabaret Des Peches, Jazz Fest Brno, Czech Republic
Feb. 1—Catania Jazz Festival, Catania, Italy
Feb. 2—Teatro Golden, Palermo, Italy
Feb. 6—Blue Note, Milano, Italy
Tony Ozuna is Art Director and senior lecturer for the School of Journalism, Media & Visual Arts at Anglo-American University in Prague.
Last modified: January 29, 2024