Nduduzo Makhathini – Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds


Title:  Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds 
Artist: Nduduzo Makhathini 
Label: Blue Note 
Formats: CD, Digital 
Release date: April 3, 2020 


A rising star on the international jazz scene, South African pianist and composer Nduduzo  Makhathini is a member of the band Shabaka and the Ancestors and was recently featured on the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s musical celebration, “The South African Songbook.”  Nduduzo makes his Blue Note recording debut this month with Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds. The album is deeply rooted in the music and ritual practices of his homeland in KwaZulu Natal, with additional inspiration provided by legends of South African jazz including his mentor, the late Bheki Mseleku, and pianist Abdullah Ibraham. It was through Nduduzo’s exposure to American jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, however, that enabled him to develop a style of playing that “could mirror or evoke the way my people danced, sung, and spoke.” Retaining those nuances and connecting his improvisations to more profound elements of divination and healing, known as uBungoma, Nduduzo’s unique vision is communicated throughout the 11 original tracks. 

The album opens with “Yehlisan’uMoya” (Spirit Come Down), which represents “a search for the light of the ancestral realms and an acknowledgement of a parallel existence between a world we see and those unseen.” Nduduzo is joined by his wife, Omagugu Makhathini, on vocals and backed by alto saxophonist Logan  Richardson, tenor saxophonist Linda  Sikhakhane, trumpeter Ndabo  Zulu, bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell Le Pere, drummer Ayanda Sikade, and percussionist Gontse Makhene. The role of the church in Nduduzo’s life is evident on “Saziwa Nguwe,” which begins like a straight 4/4 hymn tune on piano until the band enters, transforming the melody into a freely improvised multi-layered dirge. On “Isithunywa,” Nduduzo offers a beautiful, classically oriented piano intro with hints of Ravel, which continues throughout as a foundation for the ensemble.   

“Indawu,” which pays tribute to the spirits of the Nguni people that live in and underneath water, features American alto saxophonist Logan Richardson, but more remarkable is the depth and breadth of Nduduzo’s flight across the keyboard. As the track comes to a close, Nduduzo’s wife and daughter add to the counterpoint through background vocals. “Beneath the Earth” contrasts English verses by songstress Asanda Msaki against impassioned chants in Zulu by Nduduzo, lending an otherworldly quality. Closing with “Emaphusheni” (In the Dreams), the group once again strikes a spiritual quality, with Nduduzo vocalizing over the final bars, possibly offering a benediction. 

Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds showcases contemporary South African jazz and the masterful vision and technique of pianist and composer Nduduzo Makhathini. An amazing performance by Nduduzo and his band – highly recommended.  

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss