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A beloved icon at home, South African jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhathini made a big splash outside of his country last year with Modes of Communication: Letters From the Underworlds. He follows it up with the even stronger In the Spirit of Ntu, a record that’s one of the best blends of jazz and African music this side of Randy Weston. Makhathini fronts a somewhat typical jazz ensemble here, including saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, trumpeter Robin Fassie Kock, vibraphonist Dylan Tabisher, bassist Stephen de Souza, drummer Dane Paris and percussionist Gontse Makhene, plus various guests. But this isn’t something as stitched together as an African musical ensemble playing alongside a jazz band – it’s a new jazz universe. As an expert in two interrelated musical traditions, Mahkathini understands exactly how to blend Zulu polyrhythms with hard and postbop jazz, resulting in stunning tracks like “Abantwana Belanga,” “Emlilweni” (featuring guest sax from Jaleel Shaw) and “Unonkanyamba,” the kind of opening cut for which artists of any stripe would kill. The composer also invites some vocalists to contribute, with Omagugu adding rich tones to “Mama” (and its companion “Omnyamama”) and Anna Widauer including a world-weary sultriness in “Re-Amathambo,” a re-working of an older tune. Makhathini ends the record with “Ntu,” a spiritual benediction of near-free playing that sends us back out into the world, nourished and renewed. In the Spirit of Ntu stands as a new landmark in the musician’s catalog, one that will resonate with future generations of musicians, listeners and lovers of art.
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