Robert Glasper visits his favourites while Nduduzo Makhathini sings his own songs – but both pianists have the music covered

A long time ago – well, around the early 1990s – jazz performances in Joburg often featured more than their fair share of covers. They were usually covers of South African originals: Laukutshon’Ilanga, Nytilo Ntyilo and the like. Nevertheless, it is easy to forget now how dramatic has been the explosion in the past quarter-century of new, original, local repertoire. These days, a stage version of Laukutshon’Ilanga at somewhere like The Orbit is a rarity; to succeed, artists don’t just need their own sound and skill, they need their own music too.

Pianist Nduduzo Makathini is in no danger of failing that test. To his two 2014 albums Mother Tongue and Sketches of Tomorrow, he has now added a 16-track double album, Listening to the Ground (   ). It is a big collection not only in scope and imagination, but also in sound. Makhathini’s core trio – on this outing comprising Magne Thormodsæter on bass and longtime companion Ayanda Sikade on drums – is augmented by other impressive voices, including reedman Karl-Martin Almqvist, trumpeter Robin Fassie Kock, percussionist el Hadj Ngari Ndong and the voice of Omagugu Makhathini.

The material ranges widely, from the richly patterned pan-African groove of Lagos Blues and King Fela to the disassembled and reconstructed mbaqanga of From an Old Bag of Mkhumbane, with stops at church, traditional community, avant-garde jazz club and family along the way.

Nduduzo Makhathini. Credit: Standard Bank
Nduduzo Makhathini. Credit: Standard Bank

Makhathini is a highly individual composer. While the rolling, sombre introduction to Supreme Light reminds us that the inspirational shadow of Abdullah Ibrahim is never too far from any South African pianist, the rest of the tune goes in a very different, edgier direction. For You is a classic mid-paced ballad that might have been written to get dancers out on the floor. It also shows off nicely the pianist’s virtuosity. As for the Mkhumbane tune, when I heard it live it did get the dancers out for some far more old-school South African revels, and looks set fair to become an audience-request favourite.

Listening to the Ground feels more polished than the 2014 releases – one of the advantages that the resources of the Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz award brings is time to concentrate on the music. To underline that point, the album revisits an earlier track, Imvunge for two minutes of intense, helter-skelter exploration that distills the essence of that quirky theme. As both player and composer, Makhathini is now a formidable force in new South African music, and this album should be travelling far and wide to announce that fact.

While South African players are reveling in the freedom to compose for their own recordings, American pianist Robert Glasper has made his latest release, Covered (Blue Note) the occasion – as its title implies – to visit music from some other people as well as himself. In a straight-up jazz trio format, he works with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid: the players with whom he launched his Blue Note jazz career a decade ago, before he gathered a hip-hop following too.


The dozen-song selection is eclectic (“A mix of new and old songs that I love,” Glasper calls them), from old chestnut Stella by Starlight to I Don’t Even Care from Black Radio 2, from Joni Mitchell to Radiohead, and more. Most beautiful for me was Glasper’s version of Jhene Aiko Chilombo’s The Worst, which you can sample on Glasper’s website at  More bits of cover material pop up in his own In Case You Forgot, peppered with quotes including Time After Time. 

It doesn’t really matter what genre label you hang around Glasper’s neck, he is a sensitive and imaginative player who always follows the most intriguing paths a tune presents. I Don’t Even Care is here a fragile packet of musical surprises; In Case You Forgot, almost a fugue. By contrast Stella has been, in his own words “flipped and re-harmonised to make it more digestible.” It sounds like one of the old masters – maybe Bill Evans? – except…not. It’s definitely Glasper, creating from a 1944 tune something that 2015 audiences can feel.

There are voices on the album too. Glasper treats the gig as if he were in an intimate club, conversing with the audience, taking on board a self-aware rap about survival from elder statesman Harry Belafonte, and orchestrating the conscious, poignant, children’s voices that interlock on I’m Dying of Thirst, the final track: a protest against the racist waste of African-American lives.

Glasper has spoken (   ) of the beauty he finds in repetition and simplicity. This album has both: the repetition of groove and intricate patterning, and the simplicity of a gorgeous, un-ornamented piano line that can break your heart.

“I missed the piano,” Glasper has said. “I feel like people forget I’m a piano player.” They never could, but in some of those more texturally crowded (and essentially collective) hip-hop contexts, our ears had to search for his sound. For those of us who missed those beautiful lines, Covered inspires a heartfelt ‘Welcome back’.

Composing, and interpreting music composed by another, are two different musical skills. Not every player has both in equal measure. Coltrane or Miles Davis could make you hear a simple, silly pop tune in a startlingly fresh way, with a wholly different emotional impact, through interpretation alone (watch ). So while we revel in the compositional riches that a player such as Makathini can bring us, Glasper’s album is a welcome reminder that we need to cherish our great interpreters too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.