Heads Up Africa Series
Ladysmith Black Mambazo Raise Your Spirit Higher
Consider this long and important introduction as a prelude to three fine examples of South African jazz. Much of this is from a phone interview with David Love, President of the Heads Up jazz recording company. At the same time this series is honoring the historic ten-year anniversary of the end of apartheid! There is much for our music loving readers to meditate about. Think about the many wonderful artists that were never recognized. What a terrible fate for artists in any of the many fields of the arts.
David has been and is continuing to introduce the best of these long neglected jazz artists to the listening public. At this time it is neither logical nor affordable to have a separate CD for each performer. Therefore the compilation albums, or often called sampler recordings, seemed to be the best way to let the listening public hear these jazz artists for the first time. This past year's recent release Smooth Africa II was the logical successor to Smooth Africa I where David Love tried some new settings and paired some of the performers together. The resulting CD has been well received. Love decided to repeat the basic premise of Smooth Africa I plus the addition of vocalists. The result is the fine Smooth Africa II.
Here are a dozen compositions all by different composers and played by different South African jazz groups newly introduced to listeners here in the U.S.A. and elsewhere. A few prominent and outstanding examples must be mentioned. "Yebo" was composed by the well-known Joe McBride and he plays piano and keyboards here. Abezizwe "Uniting Nations Together" was performed by the now well-known South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo that was formed about thirty ears ago. Their fame was assured after performing on Paul Simon's Graceland. This composition is by group founder Joseph Shabalala. The last track on the disc is "Cape Town Love" composed by Jay Beckenstein saxophonist with the group Spyro Gyra and performed by the entire group. That is quite a finale to a widely varied group of compositions and performing groups. Joe McBride was the first American to ever perform at Cape Town's annual Jazzathon while visiting with David Love. This gave David the inspiration for the Heads Up Africa series of recordings.
Basically all the dozen compositions on Smooth Africa II are by a dozen different composer/performers. As expected there is a definite tendency for each composition to feature the composer's performing instrument or in one example the composer's voice. The first four selections are definitely smooth and cool as the CD's title implies. Next, Joe McBride's piano and keyboard are highlighted in a rather straight forward jazz composition by Joe. This is followed by an extremely sad story in song of something that probably could only happen in South Africa. Andy Narell is featured next and is now an "adopted son of South Africa" after his seventeen-city tour. Next selection is an upbeat arrangement of a traditional South African folksong. Hymn For Taiwa by Moses Khumalo follows and as true of much of the music composed over there, notable are definite religious overtones and bias to the compositions even when in true jazz style. Moses was chosen new jazz artist of the year recently. The previously mentioned Joe McBride's composition is a bit more "driving" than others on this disc and really features the brass. Gloria Bosman is the composer and vocalist on the next selection and then it is all wrapped up with Spyro Gyra's finale for this CD.
The audio quality on all these tracks was surprisingly consistent and very good. It would rank somewhere in the nineties if a number had to be attached and same would go for an enjoyment rating for myself. For those that have players that have the true HDCD decoding chip, the audio quality ranking would be a bit higher. It was a pleasant surprise to see a HDCD label on a Heads Up label recording.
The Africa Straight Ahead recording is definitely different from Smooth Africa II. This CD is more straight forward jazz (as per title) often with a real driving sense of purpose behind it. That is well exemplified on the first three selections. Next is "Beautiful Love" by Zim Nggawana composer and flutist and all beautifully and very smooth and coolly done. Next is a very upbeat composition, "Langery" with the group, Sheer All Stars performing with a nice duet with piano and guitar and McCoy Mrubata spotlighted on tenor sax. "Tugela Rail", composed by and featuring Darius Brubeck on piano. Dave Brubeck's son has been living in Durban for quite a long time. He is an educator there and has formed a band, Afro Cool Concept. The next three selections are all good examples of straight forward or mainstream jazz with fine instrumentalists. Andy Narell follows with his composition and playing his well-known steel pans and with some particularly nice piano sounds added.
Though it was recorded in Paris it blends in with all the other selections with no loss of sound quality or perspective. All is very consistent on these three recordings. Next is Bheki Mseleku's "Imbali" that includes a wide variety of instruments, even a flugel horn. The concluding selection was composed by and performed by the world renowned Hotek Idris playing piano. "Shawn's Uhadi Samba" shows off some particularly nice interplay between pianist, trumpet and alto saxophone as the disc's finale.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Raise Your spirits Higher is the last of South African jazz recordings by David Love's Heads Up label that I have for review. Do not be misled by the group's name. Joseph Shabalala founded the group about thirty years ago and they have made more than thirty albums since then. He worked with a choral group called The Blacks, which became the most popular Zulu vocal group. When Shabalala converted to Christianity and combined that church's music with his Zulu tradition, his group would not follow him. His new group consisted of seven bass voices, one tenor, an alto and Shabalala singing the lead. Though strange to many of us, there was very specific reasons for each of the three words in the new group's name. For example, Ladysmith is the name of his hometown! Their popularity soared and reached fame when they performed on Paul Simon's Graceland.
Their combination of a native background combined with Christian vocal or choral harmonies is consistent through most of their compositions and performances. Graceland or their selection, number two, on the Smooth Africa II compilation disc mentioned previously here should give you what you need as a fine introduction to this now well-known group. There are quite a number of songs sung in English on this fine recording. Here again is found consistency with the other recordings reviewed. Fine performances and fine consistent audio quality equals enjoyable music making in smooth and straight jazz styles.