While we wait for the world’s fastest broadband network to be installed in Australia, we must put up with snail paced internet services whenever a spot of rain dampens the sky. It is cold tonight and wet. I’ve been wanting to share more South African jazz for some time and since this one was already uploaded it is with pleasure I commend to you the work of pianist Bheki Mseleku.
In 1987, the late Ronnie Scott (never the most energetic of PRs, even for his own establishment) broke his usual code of leaving the jazz media alone, and took to ringing journalists up to tell them about Bheki Mseleku, the self-taught Natal-born pianist, saxophonist, guitarist and singer, who has died of diabetes at the age of 53. Wearied by the torments of South Africa's apartheid regime, the gifted Mseleku had turned up in London in the mid-1980s after a spell on the Stockholm jazz scene, and Scott had taken a gamble on encouraging a gifted young newcomer who was almost unknown in the UK at the time.
Mseleku performed unaccompanied on those gigs, and he was mesmerising. Often meditatively playing piano and tenor saxophone simultaneously (the latter cradled on his lap), he unveiled a subtly glowing blend of African township music, church music, eastern meditative chants and boppish city-streets jazz. Like his fellow countrymen Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim before him, Mseleku was eventually to make an international impact, performing with some of jazz's biggest stars. In a career hampered at times by physical and mental difficulties, Mseleku nonetheless achieved much - but his work constantly suggested great musical achievements still to be resolved. He believed in a musical world in an afterlife, but in this one those possibilities have now ended with his death in London.
After the remarkable first appearance at Ronnie Scott's, Mseleku's reputation seemed about to explode - and his friend and fellow musician, the late South African guitarist Russell Herman, worked tirelessly to bring that about. Mseleku found himself feted, not only among such London-based South Africans as pianist Chris McGregor and drummer Louis Moholo, and younger UK players such as Courtney Pine and Steve Argüelles, but by international bass-star Dave Holland's sidemen, particularly drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith, who marvelled at the new prodigy on their trips to London and were later to record with him.
But, typically, the fragile Mseleku backed away at first, retiring for two years of occasional teaching and contemplation in a Buddhist temple, with no phone, and no piano. He was to tell me at that time: "I feel if I evolve spiritually, the music will have more depth. Maybe even from one note, like Pharoah [Sanders] does."
It was almost as if Mseleku wanted to become music itself, rather than a practitioner of it - the journalist John Matshikiza wrote of him: "Bheki has always shied away from labels like 'black', 'exile', 'South African', 'jazz' or even 'pianist'."
In 1992, however, Mseleku signed up to Nick Gold's World Circuit record label to make his debut album, Celebration, and he also recorded the reflective Meditations, live at that year's Bath International Music Festival. The following year, Polygram picked him up for the Verve label, and Mseleku's album Timelessness (tonight’s feature) was launched as a star-studded affair, including cameo roles for singing legend Abbey Lincoln, saxophonists Joe Henderson and Sanders (Mseleku was later to join Henderson's touring band), and percussion giant Elvin Jones.
Mseleku's strong American influences were in harmonious balance with his South African ones on this session. But the most memorable moments were the most personal and autobiographical ones, in the African vocal harmonies of Vukani (Wake Up) and the piano-trio meditations of Looking Within.
Despite being entirely self-taught, Mseleku was the most technically sophisticated of jazz musicians, though the abiding experience of hearing him play was one of an unjazzlike simplicity.
He was born in Durban, and originally learned to play on a family piano that his father William used to lock up in his absences - but Mseleku's mother, Elvira, would secretly give Bheki and his older brother Langa the key. Eventually, Mseleku Sr realised the talents of his sons, and the piano was released.
In 1975, when he was 20, Bheki began playing R&B organ in Johannesburg, and then joined multi-instrumentalist Philip Tabane's popular Malombo group. Touring with Tabane, he discovered a world outside apartheid's violent laws. Mseleku (who believed in former lives, including an earlier one as a musician), began to reformulate his notion of "home", coming to perceive it as being about personal relationships and shared music, rather than any geographical location. He left South Africa then, living from 1980 to 1983 in Stockholm (playing occasionally with celebrated trumpeter Don Cherry) and visiting England to play with drummer Moholo before moving to London in 1985.
The early 1990s embrace of Mseleku's talents by the media and the record industry (and the brief, media-driven "jazz boom" it was part of) did not last, but the South African made two more albums for Verve. The trio album Star Seeding was with Ornette Coleman's former bass/drums parnership of Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins (1995), and Beauty of Sunrise (1995) with another all-star band including Jones and the late John Coltrane's saxist son Ravi.
Connections like these resonated with Mseleku, for whom Coltrane's and McCoy Tyner's phrasing were much bigger direct influences than, for instance, for the more traditionally African Ibrahim.
But in 2003, back in post-apartheid South Africa, Mseleku delivered the music that was perhaps closest to his roots. Home at Last featured classy local musicians, and the programme was devoted to the locations and legendary performers (some of them passed into a next world where Mseleku was sure he would one day play with them again) that had shaped this complex artist's development. Matshikiza wrote of Home at Last: "It is his eternally original spin on the music, the music of the land, the mountains, the people, the cities, the politics, the sensual violence of the blistered townships, as much as the infinitely distant music of the spheres, which he has brought us closer to in his earlier albums, that drives you through to the final beat. This is 'home' on Bheki's terms at last."
Mseleku had returned to England to find more regular work in 2006, and though his severe diabetes sometimes hampered his playing life and worsened last spring, it seemed to be under control.
He was about to go back to South Africa for concerts, including a gig at Johannesburg's Bassline club, at the time of his death in 2008. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/sep/15/jazz)
03 Looking Within
04 C-ton (Planet Earth)
05 Through the Years
08 Ntuli Street
09 My Passion