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South African Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini Shares Another Piece of His Blue Note Debut

Siphiwe Mhlambi
Blue Note Records

Last year, pianist Nduduzo Makhathini played a crucial supporting role on an album rooted in the culture of the Nguni people, who can be found throughout his native South Africa.

That album — Queen Nandi The African Symphony, by an enterprising young trumpeter named Ndabo Zulu — incorporates instruments and cadences from Nguni music. In his liner notes, Makhathini, who served as musical director of the project, suggests that the driving percussion on the album evoked a spirit of umgidi, a communal celebration.

A less corporeal spirit pervades “Indawu,” the latest single from Modes of Communication: Letters From the Underworlds, Makhathini’s forthcoming Blue Note debut. The song “pays tribute to the spirits of the Nguni people that live in and underneath water,” as he says in press materials. “These spirits are known for their fondness towards music and dance, hence the riverbank becomes a central ritual space visited to appease the ancestors.”

“Indawu,” out today, underscores Makhathini’s natural affinity for the spiritually charged modal jazz of the 1970s, and in particular McCoy Tyner’s albums from that era. It features a prominent American musician, alto saxophonist Logan Richardson, in the chief melodic role — a task he approaches with deep commitment and deceptive aplomb. Ndabo Zulu plays trumpet on the track, which also has Linda Sikhakhane on tenor saxophone. Makhathini’s wife, Omagugu, and their daughter, Nailah, appear on vocals during the song’s homestretch.

Modes of Communication, the first Blue Note album by a South African artist, will no doubt put Makhathini on the radar of many jazz listeners worldwide. But his elite stature back home is already a settled fact. He is head of the music department at the University of Fort Hare in Eastern Cape, and has more than half a dozen previous albums to his name.

He’s also a member of Shabaka & the Ancestors, a South African-inflected band led by British-Barbadian saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings. We Are Sent Here By History — the band’s incendiary new album, releasing on Impulse! next week — features Makhathini on Fender Rhodes on certain tracks.

Watch this space for a Nduduzo Makhathini feature on The Checkout, hosted and produced by Simon Rentner.

Modes of Communication: Letters From the Underworlds will be released on April 3; preorder here. The album-release engagement for Modes of Communication will take place on April 16 and 17 at Dizzy’s Club.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.