Nduduzo Makhathini Returns To Blue Note With Decorated ‘In The Spirit of Ntu’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

In the Spirit of Ntu is South African pianist, composer, and improviser Nduduzo Makhathini’s tenth studio album and his second for Blue Note. As such, it’s a distillation of the styles and concepts covered in those first nine recordings. As we learned in the previous Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds covered on these pages, Makhathini draws on his background in Zulu traditions and rather esoteric philosophies. Before the aforementioned, he had released Listening to the Ground, framing the concept of listening as knowing which he further explores here.

Makhathini assembles a band of South Africa’s talented young players including saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, trumpeter Robin Fassie Kock, vibraphonist Dylan Tabisher, and bassist Stephen de Souza, percussionist Gontse Makhene, and drummer Dane Paris for this recording in Cape Town. Guests include vocalists Omagugu and Anna Widauer as well as alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw. Both Sikhakhane and Makhene appeared on his last album and the latter also plays with Shabaka & the Ancestors, with whom the leader has also played, on Shabaka’s We Are Sent Here By History.

It was the 2021 unrest in South Africa that was the catalyst for this project. The imprisonment of former South-African president Jacob Zuma in July 2021 – for having refused to appear at a court-mandated hearing in the affair of his alleged corruption – sparked massive protests amongst his followers who demanded his release.

The leader’s rumbling piano and percolating, distinctly African percussion kick off “Unonkanyamba,” with the two horns carrying the melody before Sikhakhane launches a brief explorative tenor solo, followed by chord heavy piano excursion that blossoms into cascading notes before the Fassie Cock takes his searching turn on flugelhorn. “Mama” is breathtaking with the inspiring and soothing vocals of Omagugu with terrific support from the trumpeter. “Amathongo” features chanting from the leader, whose vocals are on eight of the ten compositions. Again, Fassie Cock is the principal soloist with Tabisher’s vibraphone and of course, the piano, integral to the pulsating percussive rhythms. In “Nyoni Le’ he places the sounds of the South African landscape into the music by employing shades of Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu’s style, a songstress noted for her use of traditional vocal techniques. 

The anchor track is “Emilweni,” which employs fire as a motif with Jaleel Shaw taking a searing solo as if emerging from the fire. Makhathini is referencing the biblical tale of Sharach, Meshach, and Abednego whose faith saw them emerge from a fiery furnace with the son of God in tow. Returning to our essence and reinventing ourselves is the heart of the previous “Mama” and the later piece “Senze’Nina,” another feature for the tenor, which incorporates an anthem of anti-Apartheid protest, the idea being the making of a new man that is more sensitive, kind, and aligned to Ntu.

Refashioning is also the theme of “Re-Amathambo,” sung gorgeously by Anna Widauer and reworked from his 2018 Ikhambi. Makhathini is metaphorically employing the piano as the Sangoma’s bones- a tool for divination and a symbol of elephant tusks represented through the ivory. The rousing, tumultuous “Abanwana Belanga,” follows with aggressive tenor from Sikhakhane, with the leader’s solo, more directly than in any other composition, resembling McCoy Tyner’s style. When the saxophonist re-enters, she’s soon joined in flight by the trumpeter. “Omnyama” builds in musical style akin to African chanting, which soon morphs to vocal chanting amidst the piano and insistent rhythms. We hear the soprano sax and jagged lines from Makhathini as the horns swell before the chanting vocals resume. This tune somehow creates the visual imagery of burning fires, central to Makathini’s concept which culminates in the hymn-like, peaceful closing title track, rendered alone on the piano with a solo that enlivens before exiting calmly.

This album launches a partnership with Universal Music Group Africa, hereby Blue Note Africa. Makhathini is central to the burgeoning jazz scene in South Africa and this deep, spiritual though eminently accessible album more than befits the label’s inaugural project. 

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