A spirit lives on

Hanging on a wall of one Johannesburg’s most famous live venues, the Bassline in Melville, is a photo of the late jazz pianist Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. The photo is an elegant portrait of the man staring at piano keys producing the sound that brought him acclaim. Clad in black with an unlit backdrop, what stands out in this striking black-and-white shot is his stare — intense yet not absorbed, laconic yet sedate.

Since Molelekwa’s passing last year February, the picture has attained a surreal feel, heightening his enigmatic aura and deepening a sense of mystery as to how a soul so calm could be tormented to a point of ending its life, and apparently that of a loved one, so tragically.

These same extreme emotions of therapeutic tranquillity that are easily transformed to restrained madness tend to characterise his music, especially his live performances. They are also contained in his first posthumous release Wa Mpona? (Do You See Me?).

Robert Trunz, the visionary founder of Melt 2000 and coordinator of this series, recalls his first encounter with Molelekwa after the 1993 Arts Alive. “I am not a great fan of piano,” he said, noting how his few favourites include Abdullah Ibrahim, who he worked with in his native Sweden, and Herbie Hancock. “But with Moses, whatever keyboard he used, he had a unique sound.”

The album sets the tone for what promises to be an interesting period of consolidating Molelekwa’s legacy. It will be followed by the release of material compiled in three early- morning hours of playing the grand piano. What promises to be an inspiring homage is a live recording from Nantes, France, in 1997, done with peers Khaya Mahlangu, bassist Fana Zulu and drummer Sello Montwedi.

But before that Molelekwa guides his followers through a familiar route that is his relatively brief career, pausing to highlight aspects that might have been missed by showcasing previously unreleased material.

It is not surprising that many keen music followers who are not necessarily Molelekwa fans love this album for its free form and spontaneity. Of the 11 tracks, three are live recordings from Cape Town to The Hague and two are remixes with a very progressive slant. These are complemented by recordings from the Outernational Meltdown Series, arguably the most carefree, avant-garde and cutting-edge recording in the 1990s, featuring vocalists Shaluza “Max” Mntambo and Lungisa Plaatjies, Airto Moreira and the London-based drummer Andrew Missingham, among others.

“Moses had ravenous musical hunger. He understood, absorbed and made his own every musical influence that came his way. From British drum’n’bass … to kwaito, Fela Kuti’s funk and of course the vast, proud heritage of South African jazz,” says Missingham, who also worked with Molelekwa on his Genes and Spirit album and the tour with the British pianist Joanna McGregor, whose ending turned out to be the last time they saw each other.

The title track of the album — a withheld composition that was deemed unsuitable by Molelekwa largely perhaps due to its playfulness — was created by Molelekwa’s rare vocal performance, which he relays with Plaatjie in child-like seSotho.

From the Outernational series comes Sing Along, lifted from the second album in the series, Barungwa: The Messenger. There are also previously unreleased live versions of his compositions, the meditative BoMolelekwa and Nobohle, recorded in Cape Town in 1994. From his 1994 debut album Finding One Self there is Mountain Shade. Many fans would pine for Itumeleng.

His last solo Genes and Spirit weighs in heavily with a breezy remix of Spirits of Tembisa by Ashley Beedle and a Mama City remix featuring Jimmy Dludlu with C Base Collective and Mark Bucahanan of Max Normal. There is also the welcome inclusion of Siya Modumisa and the experimental Genes and Spirit. But the best contribution from Genes is at the beginning and at the end.

The versions of Ntate Moholo that open and close this chapter of Molelekwa’s story are remarkable for their contrasting approach. The opener is enhanced by the solo piano of Chucho Valdez and Jose Miguel Melendez Alarcon’s congas and timbales. The swansong is a more mainstream but live version of the song performed at the North Sea Jazz festival at The Hague. Molelekwa brings out the best in players like the young saxophonist Moses Khumalo. Trunz regards this as the best performance he has seen from the mellow master. “It was magic,” he says. It also earned him a five-minute standing ovation.

Molelekwa’s memory is celebrated in many ways. Trunz has seen many keyboardists pay tribute to Molelekwa either by playing his songs or with a sound that is distinctly his.

According to his father, Jerry Monk Molelekwa, the Moses Taiwa Molelekwa Arts Foundation has been set up to help provide music education. It has already secured support from Pretoria Technikon.

Dludlu recently paid tribute to his friend Molelekwa with River of Lost Dreams. On their latest album, kwaito stars TKZee, who were fortunate to have collaborated with Molelekwa, have composed Somewhere Out There, employing the playful keyboard he introduced to their sound and alluding to ambivalence about the existence of heaven.

But it would not be amiss to suggest that the best tribute we will hear is when the man himself “plays”. The best is yet to come.

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