July 13, 2024

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CD review: Nduduzo Makhathini – uNomkhubulwane – 2024: Video, CD cover

Since making his international debut for Blue Note in 2020 with Modes of Communication: Letters From the Underworlds, the South African pianist and composer Nduduzo Makhathini has earned widespread acclaim for the genuinely spiritual transcendence of his music.

For Makhathini, a Zulu healer and educator who has delved deeply into the histories and traditions of his ancestors, improvised music has never been merely about aesthetics or idioms. As the New York Times put it when naming Modes of Communication one of the Best Jazz Albums of 2020: “In a moment when spiritual jazz has become a dangerously buzzy concept, trust a musician who has truly devoted his life to divination practices.”

But with the three-movement suite uNomkhubulwane, his third release for the venerated jazz label, Makhathini travels beyond any existing notion of music-making to offer his most profound vision of creative mysticism yet. Unlike his previous records, Makhathini explains, “which often expressed intention through composition or some form of conceptual paradigm,” the pianist seeks inspiration on a wholly metaphysical plane — using sound as a way to commune with, as he puts it, “supernatural voices.”

To say it another way, rather than relying on the celebrated work of his American and African jazz heroes, or even on the probing research in his academic fields of study, Makhathini opts here to tap into the pure essence of being — an otherworldly effort that involved “listening-hearing-sensing and establishing a relationship with an ‘elsewhere’ through some guidedness.”

Throughout uNomkhubulwane, Makhathini acts as both a futurist and an ancient, venturing into the unknown by exploring concepts that return him to the dawn of time.

Remarkably, he has crafted an inviting, immersive listen that should once again impress devotees of John and Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, classic South African jazz, Makhathini’s friend and collaborator Shabaka Hutchings and other intrepid musical voyagers. uNomkhubulwane features the pianist’s trio—an intuitive unit whose extensive touring has spanned the globe over the past year—with Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere, a bassist of South African descent who was born and raised in the U.S.; and the Cuban-born drummer Francisco Mela, a best-of-generation musician recognized for his work with Joe Lovano, Kenny Barron, McCoy Tyner and other lions, and for his own culture-merging work as a bandleader. The rhythm section adds passionate vocal backing, accenting and lifting up Makhathini’s sacred lead-vocal offerings.

Collectively, their touch is precise in its technique yet ethereal in its purpose — and astoundingly clairvoyant in its cohesion. On “Omnyama,” a gracefully hypnotic repeated figure bolsters the leader’s spoken-word — filled with rhythmically compelling contours and bluffs — and rousing sung incantations.

The click sounds that Makhathini deploys here and elsewhere in his suite, especially the qa sound common to the Bantu languages, evoke the aural sensation of water droplets; water, at the core of the African creation story, invokes essence, which in turn invokes God.

1. Libations: Omnyama (6:06)
2. Libations: Uxolo (4:22)
3. Libations: KwaKhangelamankengana (6:27)
4. Water Spirits: Izinkonjana (6:35)
5. Water Spirits: Amanxusa Asemkhathini (4:32)
6. Water Spirits: Nyoni Le? (5:20)
7. Water Spirits: Iyana (7:35)
8. Inner Attainment: Izibingelelo (6:39)
9. Inner Attainment: Umlayez’oPhuthumayo (4:38)
10. Inner Attainment: Amanzi Ngobhoko (5:41)
11. Inner Attainment: Ithemba (4:19)

Nduduzo Makhathini: keyboards
Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere: bass
Francisco Mela: drums

Nduduzo MAKHATHINI - Unomkhubulwane CD at Juno Records.

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