Kheswa gets the past. She re-invents South African jazz with verve and a superb backing band.
Label: Xippi Phonorecords
Time: 9 Tracks / 58 minutes
Essentially, this is a collection of pieces from the era under apartheid when jazz was banned for native people and led to a diaspora of talent, but word-of-mouth brought many to the Meadowlands (pronounced "Meedowlands") club to enjoy popular South African 'stolen' jazz.
Backing band Her Martians could enthrall an audience for an evening, just because they have plenty of ideas, a penchant for head-nodding grooves and an obvious musical talent to resource it all. They have the opening track to themselves and deserve much more. Their soloing skills and general groove are superb.
They are an ideal backing for the Soweto-born Nonhlanhla Kheswa, remaining strong when she has occasional vocal wobbles, able to trade of her vocal riffs as if she were another instrument in the band, and they are plainly sensitive to the time of the original pieces being re-worked here.
"Qula Kwedini" is the first song that Kheswa appears on and it is a superb transition, as she uses the title as a riff, then leaves space for the band to solo on top of its lingering sound. Jovan Alexandre is the saxophonist who makes the use of it, but pianist Taber Gable complements it beautifully with just the right strong chords that boost the whole visceral effect – as he does throughout the disc.
For "Ntyilo Ntyilo" Kheshwa becomes a South African Doris Day as the set takes on a more retro feel for the first time and you can imagine the original township dwellers singing it as their leisure highlight for the week. Many of these songs have repetetive choruses that the original clubbers would presumably have joined in with taken away with them. The same mood comes through on the fifteen minute medley of township songs (beginning with Miriam Makeba's Pata Pata") that has a swing feel. Kheswa has a powerful voice (think Angélique Kidjo) that works best on enjoyable ballads, such as the gentle classic "Malaika," but, when required, can also take on a growling persona that lets her Broadway background shine through.
The set tails off a little for the last ten minutes, with the vocals taking on a slightly strident edge and the band all competing noisily for space at the final playout. Otherwise, the exuberance and tunefulness of this material make it very appealing.
Meadowlands was recorded in New York's Joe's Pub, a smart but intimate venue frequented by musicians and music-lovers; and hearing it in that context brings out the atmosphere in the recording. As a blend of jazz, world and swing, this is an unusual disc that works well, not least because of a mighty talented set of musicians.
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