South African piano great Nduduzo Makhathini’s latest, In the Spirit of Ntu, shudders to life animated by outrage over a pernicious evil: the erasure of personhood. He describes the album as a “prayer,” and indeed it feels propelled by a cosmic purpose. But what you’ll feel most acutely isn’t incorporeal but deeply human, a potent brew of fury, joy, and solidarity.
The ancestors of Makhathini’s community pushed back against the horrors of apartheid—and personified that resistance as “Ntu.” In that spirit, opener “Unonkanyamba” leaps forth like a broken body abruptly flooded with adrenaline, with a staccato melody that will immediately grab you by the collar.
The momentum hardly lets up. Featuring excellent accompanists like trumpeter/flugelhornist Robin Fassie Kock, saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, and—on “Emlilweni”—alto sax great Jaleel Shaw, the album is smoldering (“Nyonini Le?”) and mind-bending (“Ntu”), often incorporating vocals to hypnotic effect.
In the Spirit of Ntu marks something of a milestone in recorded jazz history: It’s the first offering from Blue Note Africa, a partnership between the revered label and Universal Music Africa. Given that Africa contains universes within universes of musical traditions, it remains to be seen how the imprint plans to do justice to the continent of its namesake. That said, Blue Note rarely steers us wrong—recent releases by Melissa Aldana, Gerald Clayton, Joel Ross, Ethan Iverson, and others have been knockouts—and there’s little evidence that they’ll drop the ball with such an ambitious yet sensitive undertaking.
So here’s to this spectacular first dispatch from Blue Note Africa, and to what will hopefully be an ocean of intelligent, emotional, soul-nourishing music to come.
Learn more about In the Spirit of Ntu at Amazon and Barnes & Noble!