Pianist Bheki Mseleku was a crucial figure in South African jazz, even if his name doesn’t ring out like that of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, or Chris McGregor. Born in Durban in 1955, he was self-taught, as his highly religious father — a music teacher with a degree from Cambridge University, and a social activist — kept the piano in their house locked up to prevent any of his seven children from making music their profession. His mother and older brother encouraged him and gave him access to the instrument, though. Eventually, he learned saxophone and guitar as well. In the mid-1970s, he co-founded the group Spirits Rejoice, where he played organ, and joined guitarist Philip Tabane‘s group Malombo. In 1977, Malombo played the Newport Jazz Festival, and Mseleku met McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane.
In 1980, Mseleku left South Africa for Sweden, later moving to the UK. By the end of the decade, he had built a reputation in London, and he released his first album as a leader, 1992’s Celebration, on the World Circuit label; the band included saxophonist Courtney Pine and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith. That same year, he released the solo disc Meditations, on which he played piano and saxophone simultaneously on two long tracks, the first of which lasted more than a half hour.
He signed with Verve and ultimately made three albums for them. The first, 1994’s Timelessness, was one of those star-studded projects major labels use to introduce a new face; it featured guest appearances from singer Abbey Lincoln, drummer Elvin Jones, and saxophonists Joe Henderson and Pharoah Sanders. The follow-up, 1995’s Star Seeding, was a trio set with Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. His final Verve release, 1998’s Beauty of Sunrise, featured Ravi Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Graham Haynes on flugelhorn, and either Elvin Jones or Ralph Peterson on drums, depending on the track, as well as Mseleku’s regular bassist, Michael Bowie.
It took him five years to make another album, and it was the last to be released in his lifetime. Home at Last, from 2003, featured all South African musicians, but he found it difficult to make a living in his home country, and lost one of his most precious possessions — the mouthpiece John Coltrane used while recording A Love Supreme, given to him by Alice — in a burglary. In 2003 he returned to the UK, but he suffered significant health problems and died in 2008.
Beyond the Stars is the first music by Mseleku released since his death. It’s also the first release on the new label Tapestry Works. A solo recording, it was tracked at Gateway Studios in London in November 2003, with production assistance from Mseleku’s longtime friend Eugene Skeef, who serves as producer and contributes liner notes, as does Nduduzo Makhathini, who has spoken often of Mseleku’s influence on his own work. When I interviewed him in 2018, he told me, “I only got to know about South African jazz history when I finished studying and I was just looking for something. But I must say, with that being said, I was fortunate enough to have Bheki Mseleku, who was there when I was starting — it made it easy for me at least to gravitate toward someone like McCoy Tyner, but coming from Mseleku. I needed some kind of close reference to the music, a kind of deeper connection. And Mseleku was really instrumental even for me to get into Coltrane.”
It’s easy to hear connections between Mseleku’s playing on Beyond the Stars and Tyner’s most florid 1970s work. In his ability to flow freely from heavy blues and gospel chords to high-flying, swooningly romantic improvisations, one may also be reminded of Don Pullen. But it’s his ability to draw from outside jazz and European music that makes his work so compelling. The album begins with “Cosmic Dance,” which features an extremely forceful melody that may make you wonder when Nina Simone is going to start singing. In fact, Mseleku begins vocalizing along with himself, but this is no Keith Jarrett-esque outburst; according to Makhathini’s liner notes, he’s drawing on the traditions of the Nguni tribes of southern Africa, while other pieces reflect the influence of indigenous forms such as amahubo (Zulu praise singing) and a 1920s style of South African jazz known as marabi.
The album’s centerpiece is its second track, “Isango (The Gateway).” Running nearly 17 minutes, it’s a deeply romantic ballad that seems at times intended to accompany slow dancing, but at other times it’s so forceful it’s like he’s trying to see how much the keys can withstand. He combines almost liturgical force and a booming left hand with right-hand trills straight out of stride and ragtime, and the melody hints at a standard I can’t quite put my finger on. The stride-unto-marabi element is even more prominent on the album’s shortest track, “Ekhaya”; the intensity of his rhythm playing creates buzzing overtones from the piano’s strings, and even when he launches into freer improvisational eruptions about halfway through, the piece never stops swinging.
Beyond the Stars concludes with “Transcendence,” a nearly nine-minute piece that starts out a ballad, but Mseleku is playing with such force that it’s more like a sustained, slow-motion explosion. It almost reminds me of La Monte Young‘s The Well-Tuned Piano, the way the notes ring out endlessly, overtones and harmonies stacked upon each other until the humming and the key strikes blend into one continuous storm of sound. He brings it all down to earth by the end, though, and it resolves with a degree of delicacy that’s extraordinarily beautiful, allowing the final notes to die away for nearly 15 seconds.
The ups and downs of Mseleku’s career, and his early death, have kept him from the recognition his work deserves. Beyond the Stars would be a significant addition to his discography anyway, as he only released eight albums as a leader during his lifetime, but its sheer beauty makes it a must-hear for anyone interested in solo piano jazz, period.
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