Malcolm Jiyane: Umdali review – life-affirming South African jazz

Ever since Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim formed the Jazz Epistles in the 1950s, South Africa’s jazz musicians have reworked the American genre. The country’s sound combines the chromaticism of bebop with a deeply-swung lope; within its economy of phrasing lay anthemic melodies. Multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Jiyane sits squarely within this tradition. Mentored by trumpeter Johnny Mekoa, whose big band he joined at the age of 13, and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, Jiyane has since made his name as a pianist for Johannesburg-based collective Spaza.

His anticipated debut as a bandleader, Umdali, is at first glance a minimal affair, running to five tracks and 45 minutes. Yet it channels the subtle depth familiar from the music of Ibrahim, as if pulling at silk threads to unravel a tapestry. Senzo seNkosi is a tribute to Jiyane’s erstwhile collaborator, the bass player Senzo Nxumalo, moving from an orchestral fanfare of horns and vamping keys into a downtempo refrain, which clear for a delicately phrased solo from saxophonist Nhlanhla Mahlangu. Umkhumbi kaMa continues at the same pace, referencing Herbie Hancock’s jazz-funk in its undulating bass, while drummer Lungile Kunene’s groove becomes increasingly frantic atop a triplet horn refrain.

Jiyane’s skill as an arranger and instrumentalist comes to the fore on the second half of the record. Channelling Ibrahim’s beloved composition Mannenberg on the swaggering Ntate Gwangwa’s Stroll, he switches between trombone and keys while soloing to pepper his swing with a spiritual call-and-response reminiscent of gospel. The closing track, Moshe, sees Jiyane’s own voice taking on the yearning melody as percussionist Gontse Makhene and drummer Lungile Kunene interlock for a pulsing momentum.

The ensuing interplay between solos, vocal harmony and group melody is a perfectly-constructed 10 minutes. Like sunlight breaking through the clouds, Jiyane’s compositions contain an ineffable, life-affirming hope: a sense of bone-deep ancestry coursing through his breath and fingers, too.

Also out this month

Danish/Honduran artist Xenia Xamanek channels the downtempo dancefloor dub of DJ Python on their latest album Delirio Real (Uumphff). An unpredictable mix of synths, drum machines and guitar-led songwriting make for an enigmatic listen. Hungarian producer Àbáse blends west African and Brazilian rhythms with a satisfying and uncluttered efficacy on Laroyê (Oshu Records). Tunisian artist Houeida Hedfi reconfigures Arabic folk compositions with ambient orchestration on her cinematic debut Fleuves de l’Âme (Phantasy Sound).