Reaching for the light

At a press conference to mark the opening of the recent International Jazz Extravaganza, avid jazz head Mamsie Ntshangase asked participating pianist Thandi Ntuli if the 2016 single Cosmic Light signalled a decided turn in direction. Ntuli intimated that it did indeed.

In the ballad, Ntuli offers fragile vocals, as if acknowledging both her insignificance and singular place in an endless universe. She explained that the concept was about passing through a place of darkness to reach the light, perhaps much in the same way a human being would behold a guiding star as they journey through the night.

The sonics of the song engender a feeling of weightlessness, brought on by what I can only describe as a bending of time by drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko. His cadence, as if mimicking the Earth’s lopsided orbit around the sun, almost circumnavigates the track rather than anchoring it, signalling an intuitive trust between himself and bass player Benjamin Jephta.

The track abounds with delicate solos — first Justin Sasman on trombone, then Ntuli on the Fender Rhodes piano — something I have come to mark as a distinguishing feature in Ntuli’s repertoire.

“It might appear quiet but there is a story there,” says Mazibuko of Ntuli’s soloing as the band prepares to lay down tracks for Ntuli’s upcoming album, titled Exiled.

Mazibuko is spot on. Although quietude surrounds her, Ntuli is steadily breaking down the walls of her own limitations. “I have written a whole lot more for vocals and I’m having the horns as supporters of the vocals as opposed to having them do the melody, which I did in my first album.”

“I’d been playing a lot of Rhodes and messing around with it, and been intrigued with its sound more so than with the acoustic piano sound,” she says. “Also, part of me exploring that keyboard playing has led to me looking to different music. I have always known about Sun Ra and Herbie Hancock, especially his experimental era, but I haven’t dug into that music as much as I have recently.”

An album Ntuli singles out as an influence is Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, an album that is uncompromisingly fusionist.

“The cool thing is that Benjamin as a bassist and Lelo as a drummer both have that element of being very experimental with music. Even as we play straight-ahead jazz, in terms of the stuff that we listen to and share among each other when we’re off the bandstand, they have always been interested in the experimental side of jazz. Benjy has been working a lot with pedals recently. Sphelelo has been working a lot with electronic elements as well. We have done some gigs using that. It’s our evolution and also the synergy that we have as a rhythm section.”

At the last gig where I saw Ntuli, she played the Rhodes more than the piano, a choice that seemed to enable Mazibuko’s flights of rhythm and added a suitably contemplative layer to the music, befitting Ntuli’s weighty topics.

Exiled, the title track on her upcoming album, deals with that all too familiar feeling of isolation, in this case brought on by fragile familial bonds weathered by time and distance. “It was actually inspired by someone close to me who had a really bad falling-out with her absent father,” she elaborates.

“It got me thinking about all these different kinds of setups where one can be exiled, and obviously being exiled is associated with politics. In her case, I was using it to talk about her relationship with her father and, in many ways, how I have related to the world. I have always felt exiled.

“As a black person, you always have this sort of being-on-the-sidelines
type of thing, and as a black woman you have that as well. It just evolved into a bigger meaning from that small seed.”

In the week that I interview Ntuli, she heads to Downtown Studios to record the remaining tracks of Exiled with Mazibuko, Jephta, saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, Sasman and guitarist Keenan Ahrends.

I ask her whether she has any prerecording rituals. “Not really. I do try to meditate a lot. Meditation and prayer. For me, what is all-important is that I want to keep my ego out of the music. Sometimes it becomes a very thin line between trying to sound clever and just writing from your heart, and I think the intention is always writing from my heart because otherwise it is about me, which I don’t think music is about anyway.”

So you think your ego can creep up on you? “Yes, absolutely. I have seen this between learned musicians and musicians who don’t know what they are playing. They don’t have the access to all the information that a learned musician has, but they have an intention of what they want to play and they play it. The learned musician can sometimes be caught in the trap of being technical and thinking about all that they have learned, and putting all the intelligent parts into the music. I just always have to catch myself when that happens.”

Having wrapped the recording of her album and looking forward to its tentative August release date, Ntuli is off to Grahamstown this week to play a supportive role behind singer and guitarist Msaki.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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