Nduduzo Makhathini Quartet

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Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini will perform in a quartet setting at the Vermont Jazz Center on June 11th at 8:00 PM. He has been heralded as the “rising star of South African jazz” by the BBC, and recognized as the torch-bearer, now carrying on the great tradition of Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) and Hugh Masakela.
As a composer, Makhathini intentionally transmits the spirit of African cosmology: his music is large in scope and meditative, his songs evolve slowly and lodge in listeners’ hearts as well as their ears. Makhathini often cites pianists McCoy Tyner and Randy Weston as his major “jazz” influences – these legends visited Africa and were able to convey a musical representation of their experiences through their recordings, incorporating percussion and long-form compositions that evoked African life. As a composer, historian and pianist, Makhathini is a fresh source of inspiration to the musicians and listeners who continue to return figuratively to Africa as the original source of the essence of jazz. Quite simply, Makhathini is the embodiment of that essence. He respectfully upholds the tradition with humility and energy, calling on audiences to join him as, like a shaman, he engages us to join him in a deep experience whenever he performs.
The quartet appearing on June 11th is world class: Makhathini will be leading from the piano, and will be joined by Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, Lonnie Plaxico on acoustic bass, and VJC summer faculty drummer Francisco Mela. Each member of the ensemble is a leader in their own right: they are strong, New York-based musicians who are adept at playing tight, complicated ensemble sections, but they are also open to Makhathini’s journey-based music whose fluid shape is reliant on the input of the performers and whose objective is spiritually oriented and trance-like in nature.
In a revealing interview with Seton Hawkins in the online magazine All About Jazz, Makhathini discusses the influences of spirituality on his music. He said “Growing up, I heard a lot of traditional Zulu music. It was based on some of the ceremonies and rituals I attended as a child…But the biggest influence for me initially was the Zionist Church and their use of the drum, meditative chants and prophecy. The Zionist Church incorporated Christianity and ancestral beliefs. So, I was introduced to music as a mode for spirituality.” Makhathini also encountered John Coltrane’s use of music as a means to connect with spirit: “I went to the music library and I found this album. I read through the liner notes and saw Coltrane’s prayer, and learned about this artist who was coming from a Christian background. For the first time, I started seeing these things as linked to spirituality. Before even listening to A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, I was intrigued by the spiritual aspect that was conveyed in the title and the liner notes. I played it, and it was the first time I had listened to a jazz record all the way to the end. I was transfixed, my eyes were closed. What attracted me to the record was this meditation aspect, his use of pentatonic scales, and also McCoy Tyner’s comping that made me imagine these ceremonies that I grew up in. It touched my physical memory in a way that was very special. I wanted to find out more.”

Mahkathini’s revelation led to a heightened level of commitment to improvised music and inspired him to seek out teachers like the legendary South African pianist Bheki Mseleku and Moses Molelekwa whose mentorships went beyond technique and included how to use music as a medium for spiritual development. In an interview with Phil Freeman on the “Burning Ambulance” podcast, Mahkathini mentioned “I was chosen as a healer and that’s really what informs my world. I have a very clear understanding of the direction that I want to go for.”
Nduduzo Mahkathini grew up in the former Zulu Dingane kingdom where music and ritual practices are symbiotically linked. It is important to note that the Zulu code is deeply reliant on music for motivation and healing. In the above-mentioned interview with Phil Freeman, Mahkathini reminded listeners that he is a practicing Sangoma, who, according to Wikipedia, “believe that ancestors in the afterlife guide and protect the living. Sangomas are called to heal, and through them it is believed that ancestors from the spirit world can give instruction and advice to heal illness, social disharmony and spiritual difficulties.” In the discussion with Freeman, Mahkathini mused on how being a Sangoma related to composing music. He said that his compositions come to him when he explores “the healing properties that are embedded in the sound already,” and added that they take shape because “messages are sent to me all the time and I have to respond whenever these things are shared with me or channeled through me.”
Perhaps that is why Mahkathini’s music is ethereal and feels like a natural, organic evolution of sound that transpires in real time. When this approach is compared with more common modes of composition (for example, pieces that are meticulously assembled through craftwork), there’s a dramatic difference in both the process and the outcome. The music is freer and representative of temporal spirit as opposed to constructed ideas. Because of that, one needs to listen to Mahkahthin’s music though a different lens, to shed preconceived notions, to be open to the moment, to be willing to follow the sound and allow the journey to naturally unfold.
Mahkathini’s resume includes appearances as a pianist, composer and/or producer on over 100 recordings. He is active as an educator and researcher, and is the head of the music department at Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. He performs around the world at international festivals and high-end clubs. In 2019, Mahkathini performed at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City, and at Jazz at Lincoln Center where he appeared as a featured artist with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s celebration called The South African Songbook. Mahkathini is a member of Shabaka Hutchings’ band Shabaka and the Ancestors and has also collaborated with artists including Logan Richardson, Nasheet Waits, Tarus Mateen, Stefon Harris, Billy Harper, Azar Lawrence, and Ernest Dawkins. In addition to producing albums for his peers, Makhathini has released eight albums of his own. His 2017 album, Ikhambi, was the first to be released on Universal Music South Africa and won Best Jazz Album at the South African Music Awards (SAMA). His Blue Note debut, Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds, was named one of the “Best Jazz Albums of 2020” by The New York Times; this was recently followed by the May release of In the Spirit of Ntu in 2022.
The powerful musicians joining Mahkathini include saxophonist Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone. Shaw has performed twice at the VJC, once with drummer Roy Haynes in 2005 and once as part of the Emerging Artist Series with Carolina Calvache in 2014. He is the winner of 2014 Downbeat Critics Poll’s for Rising Star Alto Saxophonist and has earned numerous other accolades. Shaw is a longtime member of the Roy Haynes Quartet, he played on Tom Harrell’s album Colors of a Dream and has performed with Christian McBride, Jason Moran, the Mingus Big Band, Pat Metheny, Stefon Harris, Roy Hargrove, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jimmy Cobb and numerous others. He has released four albums as a leader and has appeared as a sideman on projects with Roy Haynes, World Saxophone Quartet, E.J. Strickland, Joey Alexander, Ben Williams, Dayna Stevens, Johnathan Blake, Somi, Shamie Royston, Jaimeo Brown, Kat Edmonson and many others.
Bassist Lonnie Plaxico has been on the scene long enough to propel the bands of Chet Baker, Sonny Stitt, Hank Jones, Junior Cook, Wynton Marsalis and Dexter Gordon. He was a member of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition, and the M-Base Collective. Plaxico has 12 albums out as a leader and has appeared on over 350 recordings as a sideman including projects by Kenny Barron, Steve Coleman, Ralph Peterson, Jay Clayton, David Murray, Giacomo Gates, Ernestine Anderson, Cassandra Wilson, Helen Sung, Rodney Jones, Andrew Hill, Don Byron, Jason Moran, Carla Cook, Cindy Blackman, Ravi Coltrane, Robin Eubanks, Greg Osby, Regina Carter, Jack DeJohnette, Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie, and a dozen recordings with Art Blakey.

Drummer Francisco Mela is a favorite of VJC audiences. He is a faculty member of the VJC Summer Jazz Workshop where he has graced the stage with Sheila Jordan, Jason Palmer and many others. The Cuban-born percussionist has joined forces with some of the greatest piano trios in the world, including those of McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron, Gerri Allen and Alfredo Rodriguez. Mela loves to participate in collaborative, open-ended improvisation as evidenced by the work he has produced with his own Crash Trio, with Matt Shipp, Leo Genovese and bassist William Parker, but his brilliance is also on display in tightly-scripted scenarios including his own Cuban Odyssey. A sideman on over five dozen recordings, Mela’s playing can be heard on recorded works by Esperanza Spalding, Leo Genovese, Melissa Aldana, Joe Lovano, Kenny Barron, Jane Bunnett and others.

We are fortunate to be able to hear the music of this world-class quartet and to participate in the music that they will be creating on June 11th. There is no question that Mahkathini is a rising star whose name will soon be familiar to jazz audiences. Furthermore, he is surrounding himself with other artists that understand, empathize and resonate with his unique concept. This concert is certain to provoke a visceral response amongst its audience. The music we will hear is clearly jazz, it is rhythmically charged, refers to the jazz lineage (especially Coltrane) and features improvised solos, but it is also informed by a different historical and cultural context. Mahkathini’s music is deep, but it is also a celebration. In his interview with Freeman, referred to above, he was asked what his goals were when creating music. Mahkathini thoughtfully replied that his objectives are to conceive the creation of music “as a space for celebration but also as a communal space where friendships are celebrated, and where family [i.e. bandmates and audience] is understood as one of the most important components of the music-making process.”
The VJC is grateful to have received sponsorship for this concert from Julian Gerstin and Carlene Raper, two friends of the VJC who have unstintingly supported its mission of providing a home for a wide range of performance styles, so that audiences can learn from and be exposed to a broad variety of cultural influences. Julian and Carlene’s presence in the community has generously benefited the Jazz Center and beyond with their thoughtful acts of service. Publicity for the event is underwritten by The Commons and The Brattleboro Reformer. The VJC is also grateful to the Vermont Arts Council, the Vermont Humanities Council and New England Foundation of the Arts for their support and increased efforts to stabilize the existence of arts organizations during the pandemic.
In-person tickets for the Nduduzo Mahkathini Quartet at the Vermont Jazz Center are offered on a sliding fee scale from $20 to $40 per person (contact the VJC about educational group discounts); available online at www.vtjazz.org, by email at ginger@vtjazz.org, or by calling the Vermont Jazz Center ticket line at 802-254-9088, ext. 1. Handicapped access for the in-person event is available by emailing ginger@vtjazz.org.
The online streaming of this concert will be offered free of charge but donations are welcomed and just a click away. Please give generously and support live music. Access to the on-line event can be found online at www.vtjazz.org and at https://www.facebook.com/VermontJazzCenter/live/.

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