There’s a specificity sound to South African jazz that I always find hard to describe, but exists nonetheless. The harmonies are unlike those of American or French jazz, and even when the line-up of musicians is no different than what you would find in a NYC jazz club on a Friday evening, it sounds South African. This was what originally attracted me to Zim Ngqawana’s Vadzimu. At the time I only knew of Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim. Zim Ngqawana was a revelation.
First of all, Vadzimu is what the prog rockers would call a concept album. It tells of the plight of the South African nation through four stages: Satire, Diaspora, Liberation Suite and Nocturnes. All the pieces segue into each other, there’s a continuity and even some recursiveness and cross-referencing in the melodies. In addition, there are a lot of vocal numbers, which - even though I don’t understand the lyrics - help take in what remains a fairly complex music.
Ngqawana is primarily a sax and flute player, but he touches on many other instruments in this record (including a smidgeon of diatonic harmonica). His playing is fairly advanced and he can easily jump from a great lyricism (as on the early part of Amagoduka Part 3) to wild and free abandon as on the end of Kubi. As a consequence of the variety of themes explored on the record, there’s a great variety in styles as well, and not much in common between the latin tinged Mozambique and the alternatively melancholy and angry Unamaqhinga Na.
This wonderful album is maybe not the easiest way to discover South African Jazz, but it’s guaranteed to bring something to jazz fans who would maybe find the works of a Masekela a little too mainstream. This is a deep piece of work, and comes highly recommended!