Jazz often focuses on the individual artist, taking them out of context and holding them up to the light like a bug on a pin. But musicians come from somewhere; they have peers and a community that inspires their creativity; they bounce ideas off each other and grow collectively. For that reason, a good compilation can give you an idea not only of who a particular player is, but how they related to other players around them. The five volumes of Wildflowers: The New York Loft Jazz Sessions, released in 1977, gathered recordings from Sam Rivers‘ Studio Rivbea and painted a collective portrait of what had been going on in New York in the early ’70s, as players like Rivers, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Sunny Murray, Roscoe Mitchell and many others expanded the language of creative music. More recently, the 2017 compilation We Out Here, curated by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, gathered crucial figures from the currently booming London scene to show the world what they had to offer.
New Horizons: Young Stars of South African Jazz aims to do for Johannesburg and Cape Town what We Out Here did for London. Unlike that disc, which featured all brand-new music, this set — compiled by Shane Cooper, bassist for the excellent band Mabuta — includes previously released album tracks; Thandi Ntuli‘s “Cosmic Light,” for example, comes from her 2018 album Exiled, and trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana‘s “Maqundeni” is from his 2016 disc Uhadi Synth. Pianist (and fellow Mabuta member) Bokani Dyer‘s trio offers “Fezile,” from their 2018 album Neo Native; the track is a showcase for drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko, who tumbles across the kit like in an explosion of African-meets-Latin-meets-swing rhythm.
Guitarist Vuma Levin‘s “Hashtag” comes from his 2017 album Life and Death on the Other Side of the Dream; he uses loops and electronic effects to get a percussive effect reminiscent of Lionel Loueke, as pianist Xavi Torres Vicente pounds out heavy chords that are themselves digitally chopped up, and saxophonist Bernard Van Rossum provides a melodic but spiky counterpoint. Another Mabuta member, guitarist Reza Khota, offers “Lost is a Place,” from his 2018 album Liminal. His playing has a density and sting that hints at Bill Frisell, but also nods to Terje Rypdal in its more intense moments. Singer Zoë Modiga (pictured above) contributes a track, “The Healer,” from her 2017 album Yellow: The Novel. It begins with her laughing with her background singers, and that infectious pleasure carries through the whole piece. At one point, she begins scatting in a way that makes her voice sound like it’s being fed through a wah-wah pedal. It’s a fascinating technique, however it’s achieved.
Given that the majority — if not all — of the material is previously released, New Horizons is a solid introduction to a group of talented and exciting players and singers, but not quite as exciting as a collection of new pieces would have been. It would be nice if some of the tracks were longer, too; several of them barely nudge the two-minute mark, serving more as interludes than full indications of what their creators are capable of.
Still, since most of these records were self-released to begin with, and if they’re available outside South Africa it’s only on Bandcamp, this music is likely to be new to most people hearing it. And as with Wildflowers or We Out Here, it is very much a collective portrait, since a little research will show that the personnel overlaps substantially from band to band. South Africa is producing a tremendous amount of quality jazz at the moment, and New Horizons is a great starting point.