Sometimes the narrative surrounding a record can make listening seem too intrusive. This prospect might have been a very real challenge for the revered South African jazz composer, Malcolm Jiyane as he put together his debut solo record UMDALI (available now from Mushroom Hour Half Hour) . The conflicting emotions following the death of a band member, the passing of his mentor, seminal jazz educator Johnny Mekoa and the birth of his daughter prior to the recording in 2018 could have been overbearing. It’s therefore a testament to Jiyane’s artistry that UMDALI not only reaches out, it does so with a resonance and uplifting power.
As a long standing key figure in the leftfield jazz scene in his country, Jiyane has the reputation of coaxing his contemporaries to dig deep. For the soul searching UMDALI he gathered a willing group of young players around him and it’s their vitality and vibrancy that gives the record a distinct edge. Jiyane’s compositions on the album may not stray far from seemingly conventional forms, they are certainly more structured than his previous recording with the wild spirited improv-collective Spaza, but they are buoyed by a freedom of interpretation and expression. UMDALI thrives on feel more than anything else.
Such intuition is evident from the outset. Opening cut ‘Senzo seNkosi’, a re-imagining from the Spaza ‘UPRISE’ sessions, enters on a fanfare of tumbling notes before settling into the most tender contemplative croon. Nothing is rushed and nothing gets cluttered in this sighing mid-tempo ballad. Space and time are gifted to the soloists, first Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s alto then Brandon Ruiters and Tebogo Seitei’s trumpets, as they explore the expanse of the song’s central melody before pushing the band to a swelling finale.
‘Life Esidimeni’ develops around a similar luscious slow swing and surging gospel chorus. Different highlights appear with every listen: Jiyane’s breathy lower-register trombone that voices the most personal of sounds; the delicate close stepping piano and trumpet partnership; or maybe the alto’s final sweep that urges the tune upwards. As Nkosinathi Mathunjwa’s extraordinary piano finale rains down a torrent of chords Abdullah Ibrahim style, the hymnal joy of the music just overflows.
Emotions are similarly exposed on ‘Ntate Gwangwa’s Stroll’, Jiyane’s dedication to the legendary Soweto trombonist and activist Jonas Gwangwa. A reverent slow marching blues finds Jiyane trading lines once again with Tebogo Seitie’s pure tones while Mathunjwa’s glowing electric keys bring some additional homely soulfulness. Percussionist and fellow Spaza member Gontse Makhene adds quirky toy squeaks and tingles in all the right places plus some nimble, sensitive hand drumming to ensure the slow drag doesn’t lose momentum. As band leader Jiyane calls out in the middle of the take ‘Yeh Baby’ and you just have to agree.
Makhene’s rhythmic invention also peppers the sultry jazz funk of ‘Umkhumbi KaMa’ where bassist Ayanda Zalekile and Lungile Kunene on drums get to stretch out those broken beats at pace. Jiyane acknowledges the spirit of ‘Mwandishi’ period Herbie Hancock in the track’s hard-wiring as it switches dizzyingly between hard bop, African cross rhythms and cinematic brass surges. With such reference points you begin to recognise that UMDALI’s inner strength grows from Jiyane’s solid grounding as a player and composer, his deep knowledge, understanding and desire to respect the form. This is an album that thrives on these connections.
For the record’s final track ‘Moshe’, Jiyane acknowledges that acclaimed South African pianist Moses Molelekwa’s free-spirited approach had a liberating impact by saying “He gave me the motivation to pursue what I’m feeling“. Consequently the tune is brilliantly unrestrained, built initially on more traditional African rhythms then drifting into a sumptuous melody prompted by Jiyane’s raw heartfelt vocal. ‘Moshe’ glides along with an authentic township sway, pulsing with energy as the layers build and soaring skywards with the introduction of a glistening soprano voice. Post crescendo Jiyane follows his ‘play it like you feel it’ mantra as the band bring down Moshe’s main theme to a gentle rest.
It’s a fitting end to an exceptional record on which Jiyane embraces roots and traditions in all directions while inspiring his ensemble to explore the possibilities of what they know with integrity and invention. There is no room for packaged sentiment or histrionics here, UMDALI stands as a refreshingly honest, poignant and genuinely moving statement that deserves celebration.