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An exemplar of the vibrant South African jazz scene, 39-year-old pianist-composer Nduduzo Makhathini has issued an ambitious and largely successful 69-minute opus, his 10th album and second for Blue Note. Makhathini operates in a space where spirituality, culture and politics converge with the jazz traditions of America (largely Coltrane, Tyner) and his home country (Abdullah Ibrahim, Bheki Mseluku). It’s a tricky proposition, but he rises to the occasion. Working with a core septet consisting of his countrymen, Makhathini displays his penchant for polyrhythm and counterpoint right out of the gate with “Unonkanyamba.” Bassist Stephen de Souza and vibraphonist Dylan Tabisher dig into a short, galloping figure, which they maintain throughout the song, while drummer Dane Paris and percussionist Gontse Makhene weave together an undulating groove. Tenor saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane and trumpeter Robin Fassie Kock play a dreamy, deliberately paced melody over top.Makhathini punctuates the proceedings with playfully discordant and Afro-bluesy piano licks, rife with oddly placed accents. His idiosyncratic piano approach takes center stage during his solo — full of knotty lines, strident clusters and abrupt single notes and chords. At times he strikes the keys so hard that it leaves a bruise.On various selections, Makhathini takes a brief vocal turn in a thin, pinched voice, singing in his native Zulu. These forays quickly — and wisely — make way for the instruments. But the album’s zenith comes courtesy of another track with vocals. The slow-moving “Senze’ Nina?” begins with a somber piano part, followed by a haunting choral section that repeats, in Zulu, the phrase “what have we done?” — a slogan from the anti-apartheid movement. Then Sikhakhane steps in for a meditative tenor solo. The tune embodies a sublime convergence of South African music and Coltrane-inspired spiritual jazz.All told, In the Spirit of Ntu eschews the celebratory bounce common in earlier iterations of South African jazz. Makhathini and his peers have ushered in a new era of sophistication. — Eric Snider
Featured photo by Ndumiso Mtshali.