South African pianist and composer Nduduzo Makhathini will release his first album for Blue Note Records, Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds, in 2020. The lead track ‘Yehlisan’uMoya’ (‘Spirit Come Down’) is available now to stream or download.
Yehlisan’uMoya’ expresses “a search for the light of the ancestral realms and an acknowledgement of a parallel existence between a world we see and those unseen.” The track features the vocals of the artist’s wife Omagugu Makhathini, and a band featuring alto saxophonist Logan Richardson, tenor saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, trumpeter Ndabo Zulu, bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell Le Pere, drummer Ayanda Sikade and percussionist Gontse Makhene.
Makhathini has released no fewer than eight albums in his own right since 2014, the year he founded the label Gundu Entertainment in partnership with Omagugu. They include Sketches of Tomorrow (2014), Mother Tongue (2014), Listening to the Ground (2015), Matunda Ya Kwanza (2015); Icilongo: The African Peace Suite (2016), Inner Dimensions (2016), and Reflections (2016).
Following these, the 2017 release Ikhambi was his first to be released on Universal Music South Africa, and went on to win Best Jazz Album at the South African Music Awards (SAMA) in 2018. Makhathini has also produced albums for such peers as Thandiswa Mazwai (Belede)and Tumi Mogorosi (Project Elo).
The pianist-composer grew up in the rugged countryside of umGungundlovu in South Africa, where music and ritual practices have been historically and symbiotically linked. UmGungundlovu was the site of the Zulu king Dingane’s kingdom between 1828 and 1840, and this backdrop became central to Makhathini’s musical vision, alongside his involvement in the church as a young man.
He became immersed in the great names of South African jazz, notably Bheki Mseleku, Moses Molelekwa and Abdullah Ibrahim. “The earlier musicians put a lot of emotions in the music they played,” he says. “I think it may also be linked to the political climate of those days. I also feel there is a uniqueness about South African jazz that created an interest all around the world and we are slowly losing that too in our music today. I personally feel that our generation has to be very conscious about retaining these nuances in the music we play today.”
Through the late Mseleku, whose 1991 album Celebration was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize, Makhathini was introduced to John Coltrane’s classic quartet with McCoy Tyner. “I came to understand my voice as a pianist through John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme,” he says. “As someone who started playing jazz very late, I had always been looking for a kind of playing that could mirror or evoke the way my people danced, sung, and spoke. Tyner provided that and still does in meaningful ways.”
Makhathini is also head of the music department at Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape, and has performed at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and the Essence Festival, in both New Orleans and South Africa. In January 2019, he made his first appearances at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City and at Jazz at Lincoln Centre, as a featured guest with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. This was during their three-night celebration the South African Songbook at Rose Theatre.
The musician is a member of Shabaka Hutchings’ band Shabaka and the Ancestors, and played on their 2016 album Wisdom of Elders. Makhathini’s other collaborators include Logan Richardson, Nasheet Waits, Tarus Mateen, Stefon Harris, Billy Harper, Azar Lawrence and Ernest Dawkins.