Album Review: Nduduzo Makhathini – Listening to The Ground [Gundu Entertainment, 25th June 2015]

Listening to The Ground in its entirety sounds like a child of American hard bop. The songs speak a South African native’s hard bop: a mix of indigenous gospel, blues, piano and rhythm. Nduduzo Makhatini grew up in a small town in South Africa, uMgungungdlovo, once the capital of a Zulu kingdom. His parents were both musicians, his mother a pianist while his father played the guitar. He grew up steeped in music. He sang in a choir during High School and went on to study Jazz piano at UKZN. Hard bop is a cosmopolitan, Jazz genre and was bred in cities that are open to the world. Hard bop musicians such as Dexter Gordon don’t close themselves off to solely expressing identity.

Jazz was once very popular in urban South Africa. South African Jazz followed and famous names such as Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim came to grace the world stage. Jazz’s popularity lingered until Jazz was playing such a prominent role during South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement in the1960’s that it was censored. Now that the end of apartheid has brought new culture to South Africa, Jazz has made its way back into South African life, though not as the popular musical genre that it was once was. Nduduzo Makhathini’s Listening to The Ground is a well composed and well played revival of South African Jazz.

“Waltz for Trane” is the album’s masterpiece. It is slow and precise. It sounds harsh at times, but the piano playing remains delightful throughout. The most well known Waltzes, for example Ravel’s and Schubert’s, are understood by most fans to be delightfully easy listens. To quote Ravel, however, “it’s when the means of expression have finally surrendered all their secrets, that the real inner emotion of the music becomes apparent to the listener.” The same goes for this song. Trane, John Coltrane, is Makhatini’s ancestor in the composition and he plays him a Waltz worthy of the feeling that Coltrane brought to Jazz (A Love Supreme for example).

An easy listen that reveals the inner emotion of the music can be said about the entire album and to be honest listening to this entire album is a waltz. Even a song with the title “Rejoice” seems to be rooted in deep, dark, feeling. “Lagos Blues” is a great up tempo song where each of the instruments is let wild as Jazz does it best. “Miss New Day” is an incredible love song which also stands out. Like “Waltz For Trane,” it reveals itself as an emotional though easy listen.

Some listeners might argue that there is not enough soloing in his songs. Jazz’s heritage is complex and soloing is certainly not the only legacy the greats have left us. Composing a beautiful song is another.