A generous sideman and bandleader, multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Jiyane stands at the vanguard of his prodigious generation of jazz musicians. Operating from the center and the fringes of the South African jazz scene, the trombonist (and pianist) is an enigmatic yet charismatic galvanizer of his contemporaries, able to put them through their paces in his own compositions while giving them enough room to interpret them anew.
In UMDALI, his debut album as frontman, Jiyane delivers not only a major contribution to the canon — one shaped around dedications to key figures in his personal and professional life — but an honest snapshot of his personal circumstances at the time of recording. In that period several years ago, Jiyane was dealing with the death of a band member, the birth of a daughter, and the passing of his beloved mentor Johnny Mekoa, founder of the Music Academy of Gauteng, which Jiyane attended from a young age. These life-altering events give shape to the music’s emotional register and its thematic concerns. Positioned at the edge of this precipice, Jiyane turned to a core of talented musicians mostly based around Soweto’s jamming scene, as well as to key figures in his own creative trajectory.
The coterie of bassist Ayanda Zalekile, drummer Lungile Kunene, percussionist Gontse Makhene, pianist Nkosinathi Mathunjwa, saxophonist Nhlanhla Mahlangu and trumpeters Brandon Ruiters and Tebogo Seitei shrouded him in his time of need, providing intuitive musicianship through which to execute his ideas, and, more importantly, life-affirming comradeship.
Jiyane is nothing if not the product of astute mentorship from elders and peers alike. Given the late Mekoa’s stature in South African jazz, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa (also late) would have been among regular visitors to the academy, imprinting on the young Jiyane not only the breadth of South African music traditions but also the science of how to lead musical ensembles without stifling individual contribution.
In Gwen Ansell’s memorable Mail and Guardian obituary of Gwangwa, she quotes saxophonist Steve Dyer on the elder trombonist’s approach to music-making as such. “For him, it was not about the notes. It’s not about the theory. It is about the feeling and emotion behind the notes.” This valorizing of comradeship and warmth over technical wizardry is noticeable throughout UMDALI. It can be felt, in particular, in the swaggering gait of Ntate Gwangwa’s Stroll, in which Jiyane channels the elder, and can be heard shouting encouragement to Nkosinathi Mathunjwa as he carefully feels his way into a keyboard solo towards the song’s end.
That Jiyane is informed by a frame of reference that extends beyond the trombone, goes without saying. Moshe courses with late pianist Moses Molelekwa’s harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic idiosyncrasies. “I found myself thinking about how he would approach certain songs,” said Jiyane. “It’s like being in someone’s shoes kind of a thing, looking into what they have achieved musically. He’d play piano the way he feels it. He gave me the motivation to pursue what I’m feeling.”
In Black Music, his book of essays and critiques, Amiri Baraka makes the point that jazz musicians, be it in the construction of solos or in other aspects of composition, always draw on the works of their contemporaries or elders. How much outsiders pick up on that is really dependent on how au fait they are with the music. In this album especially, Jiyane finds comfort in this well-trodden path. Two songs make for great examples. Umkhumbi kaMa, a jazz-funk track celebrating the creative force as inhabited by women, the motif to Herbie Hancock’s Ostinato (Suite for Angela) is a clear reference, connecting in one swift move, not only the musical traditions of the Black Atlantic but also the struggles and triumphs of women across space and time. On the same note, the free-form Solomon, Tsietsi & Khotso, conjured in the same jam session that yielded SPAZA’s UPRIZE!, appears here in a more fleshed-out form as Senzo seNkosi; a tender dedication to Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O bass player Senzo Nxumalo.
Jiyane’s own path to the realization of UMDALI is nothing if not fraught with tests along the way. But his generosity of spirit means that the offering is more than merely one individual’s breakthrough. Workshopped and recorded within two days in Johannesburg, UMDALI, not unlike Miles Davis’ landmark Kind of Blue, stretches our idea of what it means to improvise within the context of jazz.
With this debut, Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O has created a work that is not only keenly aware of what came before it but blazing a trail to the future. ~BandCamp
At your leisure, check out “UMDALI” by Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O