Gideon Nxumalo – Jazz Fantasia (1962, Renown NLP 223)
True to its name in both form and spirit, Gideon Nxumalo’s 1962 Jazz Fantasia is a key document of modernist South African jazz. Vital, ambitious, consummate in conception and execution, it is perhaps the crucial small group recording of the early 1960s, and one of the few complete sets by a small modernist group to have been released on LP during these years. Nxumalo’s compositions are taut and boppish, in places unmistakably water-marked by the language of mbaqanga jazz, but speaking fluent bop – ‘Isintu’ in particular knits the melancholic mbaqanga chords which underpin the piece seamlessly into the bebop-styled changes of the main section.
The line-up features the extraordinary conjunction of two of the foremost altoists in jazz history, Kippie Moeketsi and Dudu Pukwana. There is a sense here that the guard is changing: this is one of the last commercially released recordings to feature Moeketsi before a combination of drink, depression and disillusionment effectively silenced his horn for the remainder of the decade. Pukwana’s star, on the other hand, was in the ascendant: he had been part of the winning band at the Cold Castle festival that same year, and was soon to depart for Europe where, as part of the Blue Notes,his unique approach to his instrument would help redefine the language of European jazz over three decades. In 1962, very few people anywhere in the world were playing the horn as Pukwana does here. His better known UK and European recorded history often leads to him being regarded as part of the second wave of radical and free musicians, but recordings like this (listen to his solos on ‘Chopi Chopsticks’ or ‘Split Soul’) make it quite clear that he should be seen as a primary innovator in the fracturing and loosening of the saxophone’s conventional syntax and voice.
Nxumalo himself is an absolutely central figure in the development of modernist jazz sounds in South Africa. As ‘uMgibe’ he hosted the This is Bantu Jazz radio show on the rediffusion service from the early 1950s onwards, until his dismissal for playing politically charged music in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre. A university trained pianist, he taught piano and theory at Dorkay House, and he composed the music for the Sponono musical, the first South African production to play on Broadway. As evidenced here, his playing is of singular stamp and his compositions are radical and exploratory, but as with so many South African innovators, his recorded footprint is frustratingly small and incredibly hard to find. The few LPs issued under his name are so rare that in musical terms he has become a virtually unknown quantity. But his stature is in no doubt.
Recorded live at Wits University on 8 September 1962, both the original Renown pressing of Jazz Fantasia and the 1991 Teal ‘African Heritage’ repress suffer from patchy sound quality, which can probably be put down to the circumstances of the recording. It cannot mask the quality of the sounds.
NB. The back cover notes list a track called ‘Waltz in F’. This track does not appear on any issue of the LP.
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