Against a background of full-throated endorsement by Wynton Marsalis and more compliments from the rest of the American counterparts, South African Jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhathini has certainly earned a self-congratulatory fist pump.
For jazz musicians, even the slightest shout-out by Marsalis is can launch a career. Imagine, if you will, Wynton Marsalis – arguably one of the most decorated elder statesmen of jazz – singing your praises to the rest of the Jazz community. That’s kind of a big deal.
Here’s the context. Marsalis played Johannesburg in September, working in concert with a South African promoter, T Musicman. The highpoint of his visit was an appearance at the venerated Standard Bank Joy of Jazz, an annual jazz festival staged in Sandton, South Africa.
Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played in tandem with the ZAR Jazz Orchestra with Marcus Wyatt, exploring the “South African Songbook,” Swing Era arrangements and other idioms of the genre. It was a mammoth transatlantic collaboration that received considerable attention.
In the wake of the gig in question, Marsalis has been plugging South African jazz talent to the American press, going to town on Nduduzo Makhathini in particular. He also spoke highly of pianist Thandi Ntuli and veteran reedman McCoy Mrubata, and remarked about young artists including Vuyo Sotashe, sparing no compliments when it comes to Makhathini. “Man, this guy can play!’ Marsalis told art critic Howard Reich. “This guy’s such a genius if y’all don’t know who he is. I always tell Nduduzo, ‘Man, if my daddy [Ellis Marsalis Jr.] heard you, he wouldn’t have stopped talking about you,’” Marsalis said in a different interview.
The sense of awe was reciprocated. “It’s pretty heady hearing Bab’uMarsalis saying that sort of thing about you,” said Makhathini, using his nickname for Marsalis. “I can only be grateful. Bab’uMarsalis is definitely one of the greatest artists and custodian of this art form. So for him to be moved by something in who I am and what I express in the music is a huge honor for me… That moment transformed me completely.”
On April 3, Makhathini released Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds
, his ninth, self-produced solo album. The album marks Makhathini’s debut for Blue Note Records. Makhathini signed on in 2019 when he was 36 years old. In what is one for the books, the label has also confirmed that he’s the first South African to be signed. Almost oblivious to the fanfare around his signing, Makhathini kept working, getting on the road recently with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which recently played a series of gigs in Vienna.
He’s also been discreet about the details of his contract, happy instead to imagine what ripple effect his signing will have for jazz in South Africa.
“I think there is a lot to be said about time,” says Makhathini. “There is indeed a time and reason for everything. I believe that so much will still reveal itself with regard to this move. Well, I’m trying to say that signing to Blue Note Records is just the beginning of a larger move for the entire jazz community in South Africa.”
Born in umGungundlovu in Kwazulu- Natal, a coastal South African province, Makhathini demonstrated a good ear for music from a young age. Watching mom and dad dabbling in guitars and keyboards, Makhathini took it all in by osmosis and had no formal training until later in his teens.
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Nduduzo Makhathini (Photo: Courtesy the artist)[/caption]
“I kinda observed my parents,” he chuckles. “My mother could play a bit of keys. Her love for the instrument inspired me more than what she was actually playing at the time.”
In 2001, Makhathini’s parents shipped him off to Durban University of Technology to study music and on completing his training, he moved to Johannesburg for prospects. Upon arriving in Johannesburg, he immersed himself in both the studio and local live music scene, working with a raft of South African luminaries such as Jimmy Dludlu (a one-time PolyGram and Verve artist), Themba Mkhize, Simphiwe Dana and Vusi Khumalo. Makhathini also went on to become a backup pianist for the late saxophonist Zim Ngqawana.
For all his success as a producer and sideman, by the time he launched his solo career, Makhathini had managed a surprising amount of his life without publicity in the press. In 2014 he released his critically acclaimed debut album Sketches of Tomorrow
, revealing a myriad of influences by mentor Bheki Mseleku as well as a whole slew of pianists including Randy Weston and McCoy Tyner.
Makhathini has released a total of nine albums, seven of which were released independently through Gundu Entertainment, a label he runs with his wife and vocalist Omagugu Makhathini.
In 2017, Makhathini released his eighth album, Ikhambi
, marking his debut for Universal Music South Africa. Ikhambi
won Best Jazz Album at the South African Music Awards (SAMA) in 2018. On the strength of the same album, Makhathini was also nominated for male artist of the year, a rarity for jazz artists.
Recorded in 2018, over a period of two days, Modes of Communication
represents a quantum leap in his expression of spirituality. In a small way, he models himself after Randy Weston, an American jazz pianist and composer whose creativity was inspired by his ancestral African connection. It was a breeze writing for the album, he says, adding that tunes came in a dream.
“Working on Modes of Communication
felt like a long dream that I just woke up from. It was a series of revelations – I felt as though I was in a trance and the next thing I knew, the album was out. Similar to most of my works, it was organic. All the tunes just came. I would sit at a computer and in no time all horn arrangements, lyrics and all would just flow through my head.”
The album features his long- time collaborator Ayanda Sikade, a drummer. Special guests include American reedist and labelmate Logan Richardson.
“It’s great having Logan on the record,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to work with him. I’ve been listening to him since I was a student. We gravitate to the same things. We both like similar things. Coltrane was the connection because we both gravitate to the music of Coltrane.”
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Photo courtesy Blue Note Records[/caption]
Looking ahead, Makhathini sees Blue Note’s pivotal role in modern jazz and in getting South African musicians to the world. He also foresees more work with Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
“Barring the quarantine, the rest of the year is exciting with the release-new possibilities will emerge. I have a couple of things in the pipeline with Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. I’m truly looking forward to this kindred-ship and the potentials it holds,” says Makhathini.