South African saxophonist Sisonke Xonti has been steadily building a reputation in that country for most of the last decade. (This interview, conducted by Seton Hawkins, will fill you in quite thoroughly.) I’ve heard him on Mabuta‘s Welcome to This World and two albums by Marcus Wyatt‘s ZAR Jazz Orchestra, One Night in the Sun and Into Dust/Waltz for Jozi, all excellent. uGaba the Migration is Xonti’s second album as a leader, following 2017’s Iyonde.

The core band includes Sakhile Simani on trumpet, Yonela Mnana on piano, Benjamin Jephta on bass, Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums, and Tlala Makhene on percussion. Bokani Dyer plays Fender Rhodes on four tracks, and on two pieces (“The Call” and “Nomalungelo”), Lwanda Gogwana plays trumpet, Vuyo Manyike is on electric bass, and Leagan Breda is on drums.

The centerpiece of the album is the four-part “Migration Suite,” which makes up half its running time. The first movement begins with a wordless rumbling sound like throat singing, along with prideful horn fanfares. The second includes a recitation by Xonti of the poem “Migration” by Teboho Moleko, which is filled with a deep ambivalence. “Should I go home or continue? I am feeling anxious and alienated…the city is overcrowded and my condition is clouded by my lack of fortune, family and favor.” He considers those who seem stuck in a kind of transitory limbo, “residing in temporary homes forever.” The music, which throughout all four movements is suffused with the blues even when the drums are skipping along, offers neither solace nor counsel.

Xonti sings on “Sinivile,” with a male chorus backing him up and shimmering harp glissandi (uncredited) giving the track a lushness and spirituality only reinforced by his switch to soprano sax from his usual tenor. In the album’s final third, the sound shifts to an R&B-rooted jazz-funk style, with deep electric bass, piano and Fender Rhodes working in parallel, and on “The Call,” English-language lyrics from Keorapetse Kolwane. and a synth solo that could have come from Brandon Coleman of the West Coast Get Down. The album ends with “Nomalungelo,” an uptempo romp on which Mnana sings in a hoarse, excited tone over a kind of bouncing, almost New Orleans rhythm and plays florid, nearly Chick Corea-esque piano.

One of the great strengths of uGaba the Migration is the ensemble writing. Though he’s a skilled, thoughtful player, Xonti rarely solos, instead staying with the band in order to amplify a powerful collective voice. Indeed, trumpeter Simani seems to get more spotlight time than the nominal leader. But the fact that he put this band together, and made this music, speaks extremely well of him. Like recent releases by Nduduzo Makhathini, Ndabo Zulu, and Thandi Ntuli, uGaba the Migration shows that South African jazz has all the breadth and depth of the music coming from London, Los Angeles, or New York.

Phil Freeman

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