Taking its name from the Zulu word for ‘inspiration’ longtime friends and collaborators Tbone Paxton and RJ Spangler present ‘‘Ugqozi’ via Eastlawn Records today. Having dedicated decades to studying, performing and celebrating the joyous music of South Africa, the latest manifestation of their passion for the subcontinent is an uplifting collection of music by various well known South African musicians including jazz trumpeter Mongezi Feza, Blue Note pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, and Nigeria’s Fela Kuti.
The Detroit-based partners have been playing together since the 1970’s, forming their first creative outlet for exploring South Africa’s sound in 1980 with the multi-award winning ensemble ‘The Sun Messengers’ which established them as a cornerstone of the city’s vibrant scene.
With their latest release, they reassemble their critically acclaimed septet for a collection of songs arranged by Jeff Cuny and guest saxophonist Salim Washington. Together, they give these popular songs refreshingly energetic new treatments through powerful horn solos, interactive musicianship and virtuosic jazz improvisation.
With the seven piece ensemble at Ugqozi’s core extended by a number of featured guests, the band features a tight rhythm section well-versed in African influenced groove.
The gospel-infused funkiness of pianist Damon Warmack, the propulsive bass playing of Kurt Krahnke and the inspiriting rhythms provided by drummer Sean Perlmutter and percussionist/bandleader RJ Spangler provide a strong and dynamic foundation for the ensemble’s powerful horn section. Whether interpreting a well-known melody or collectively building into a cacophony of spiritual sonic exploration, what stands out is the ensemble’s collective love for their craft.
John ‘Tbone’ Paxton | trombone
RJ Spangler | congas, percussion
Dan Bennett | tenor/alto saxophones
Kasan Belgrave | alto saxophone, flute
Phillip J. Hale | piano
Damon Warmack | bass
Kurt Krahnke | acoustic bass
Sean Perlmutter | drums
Salim Washington | tenor saxophone, oboe, flute
Alex Harding | baritone saxophone
John Douglas | trumpet
1. “You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos” by Mongezi Feza
2. “Ithemba” by Nduduzo Makhathinan
3. “Part of A Whole” By Caiphus Semenya
4. “Lwandle’s Lullaby” by Salim Washington
5. “Water No Get Enemy” by By Olufela Olufemi Anikulapo Kuti
6. “Pata Pata” by Miriam Makeba and Jerry Ragovoy
7. “Jabulani – Easter Joy” by Abdulla Ibrahim
Get Ugqozi on Bandcamp HERE
Background info on the tracks in the words of Salim Washington
This recording by the Paxton/Spangler septet lives up to its name, Ugqozi, which translates from isiZulu as “inspiration”.
This inspiration is layered and can be felt and understood on various levels. On the outside there is the special attention to South African jazz, a very longstanding interest for both T-Bone Paxton and RJ Spangler. I remember myself playing with them as a young man in the 70s when they were revealing their inspiration gathered by progressive big band music by the likes of Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath or Sun Ra’s Intergalactic Arkestra in groups such as Kuumba (Kiswahili for “Creativity” again the idea of ugqozi) and later, the Sun Messengers.
There is also the sense of inspiration revealed in the synergy between the septet and the various guest artists (Including Kirk Krahnke whose collaboration with the leaders also harkens back in the day to the 70s). The simpatico musicians blended seamlessly to assist in a band sound, a unique flavor that all great bands must achieve, through instrumental blend, arrangements, aesthetic understanding and much more.
Nowhere is this collective aesthetic vision more apparent than in Mongezi Feza’s “You Don’t Know Me, ‘Cause You Think You Know me. The collective soloing of the horns (led by the alto of Kasan Belgrave is buttressed by the rhythm section led by Damon Warmack’s electric bass playing, recalling the genius of both Detroit native and Motown stalwart, James Jameson, and the inspiration of south African creative bass playing, Johnny Dyanni.”
Along with “Ithemba”, “Lwandle’s Lullaby” represents contemporary South Africa. It is unusual for jazz because of its use of the oboe, an instrument best utilized in Jazz by Yusef Lateef who lived in the same neighborhood and went to Miller like the current oboist. While flute has become a common double, it is unusual to have someone with the expressive mastery of Kasan Belgrave.
“Ithemba” is a lovely ballad by Nduduzo Makhathini, who has transcended being a South African star pianist and bandleader as he joined Blue Note Records. The song is perfect for tenor saxophone and recalls in oblique fashion South African classics such as “Yakhal’ Inkomo” and “Inhlupeko”. T-Bone Paxton takes a fresh, lyrical solo, followed by an interesting opening by Dan Bennet on alto, clean up position filled by Phillip Hale’s use of rich chords with a gospel sensibility, serenaded by RJ Spangler 12/8 stretching the 4/4 of the band in fidelity to the South African feel. The vamp following the out chorus again lives up to its name; Ithemba is Zulu for Hope (Bra Louis Moholo named me Themba last year as I was leaving South Africa to New York).
“Jabulani” (Joy) again displays the band’s ability to play convincingly as a collective. Going with and through, beyond the Brotherhood of Breath and Ornette Coleman’s approaches to this feeling. The horns make good lines and space them interestingly and musically. The rhythm section is killing! The momentum of the bass, the free but anchoring piano, and the energy of drums all make this a special instance of joy.
“Part of a Whole”, another SA classic penned by Hugh Masekela. Here we hear clearly the close relationship between African American “soul jazz” a la Crusaders, and the fusions created by commercial minded SA musicians such as Masekela. We hear Dan this time on tenor with a relaxed but precise solo.
Mama Afrika, Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” is performed in a bluesy manner with flashes of post Coltrane soloing from time to time, making the stew more picante. Pata pata indeed.
“Water No Get Enemy” brings us to the sounds of Fela Kuti’s Nigeria. The grit and funk of Alex Harding’s baritone playing reminds us that his was the anchoring voice of the Broadway hit “Fela”. Dan gives us a Kuti-esque solo in sound and range, more peripatetic than display of velocity. That bari sax!
Ugozi is indeed an important release, balancing accessibility with progressive yearning.
“Bringing the energy and soul of Detroit to South African music”
Find out more about The Paxton/Spangler Septet HERE