Jazz seems to be seeping back into the mainstream in the UK these days, with many year-end best-of lists mentioning the likes of Kamasi Washington and Sons of Kemet, to name but two. It wasn’t always that way, of course, and for many years, jazz fans joked that the Mercury Prize always had to contain one token jazz artist. In its year of inception – way back in 1992 – U2, Erasure and Simply Red were joined by the debut album by South African pianist, and multi-instrumentalist, Bheki Mseleku. Mseleku arguably never got the recognition he deserved, and only recorded six albums as a leader before he passed away in 2008.
Mseleku made London his home for several years. His touring band included a number of local musicians, including pianist John Donaldson and bass player Simon Thorpe – two of the founding members of Hastings-based jazz band, Hexagonal.
One of the other founding members, saxophonist Jason Yarde, had the “pleasure and pressure” of touring with the legendary pianist, McCoy Tyner. And on their debut album, the band pairs material by both McCoy Tyner and Bheki Mseleku to good effect, with the arrangements courtesy of John Donaldson. The blend works well, in part because Donaldson chooses to highlight Tyner’s more African-influenced compositions, many of which date from his marvellous 1970s recordings.
Joining Donaldon, Thorpe and Yarde are a veritable UK jazz ‘supergroup’; Greg Heath on tenor saxophone and flute, Graeme Flowers and Quentin Collins alternating on trumpet (and flugelhorn) and Tristan Banks on drums.
Then album opens with Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit, which first appeared on Tyner’s 1973 album, Enlightenment. Donaldson’s arrangement’s is slightly less lighter, and less intense than the original, which brings out the beauty of the melody. Ballad For The Saints was a swinging ballad from Mseleku’s 1995 recording, Star Seeding. Donaldon’s playing is beautiful here, and there’s a fine solo by Quentin Collins, too.
Man From Tanganyika was from Tyner’s Blue Note masterpiece, Tender Moments. It’s one of the highlights here, and features an exciting horn arrangement, and superb drumming and percussion from Banks. Fantastic stuff. Joy was the opening track from Mseleku’s debut album. It’s given a more uptempo read here, with Greg Heath shining on flute.
Fly With The Wind has long been one of my favourites by McCoy Tyner, and Hexagonal capture the spirit of the original with a compelling performance that demonstrates that as a band, they are even more than the sum of their considerable parts. My Passion is a delicate ballad by Mseleku, which allows Donaldson’s lyrical piano to shine, before Angola again demonstrates that fantastic horn section.
McCoy and Mseleku is a fine debut in its own right, but it will also have you seeking the originals – in my case, trying to get hold of Bheki Mseleku’s debut album, which somehow escaped my attention. The band write their own material, too, but until that appears on their next album, this is the perfect appetiser.