Though he’s only made three albums as a leader, bassist Herbie Tsoaeli is a linchpin of the 21st century South African jazz scene. He’s played with legends like Oliver Mtukudzi, singer Sibongile Khumalo, saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, pianist Bheki Mseleku and more.
Tsoaeli’s debut album, African Time, came out in 2012 and was very popular in South Africa if little heard elsewhere. (It’s not available on streaming services in the US.) Two years later, he released In Concert with a group dubbed the African Time Quartet. That album, too, is currently unavailable to US listeners. And now, seven years later, he’s back with At This Point In Time: Voices In Volumes, effectively making his global debut. On the album, he’s joined by pianists Andile Yenana and Yonela Mnana, trumpeter Sakhile Simani, trombonist Steven Sokuyeka, tenor saxophonist Sisonke Xonti, alto saxophonist Tshepo Tsotetsi, and drummer Ayanda Sikade. There’s also a backing vocal ensemble on several tracks that includes Xonti, Busisiwe Sibeko, Khumbuzile Dhlamini, Bongani Nikelo, Sakhile Moleshe, and Gontse Makhene.
The music blends hard bop with African grooves and spiritual jazz; you could easily play it alongside Alice Coltrane‘s Journey In Satchidananda or McCoy Tyner‘s Extensions. Simani’s solo on “Abadala Baholo” is an early highlight of the album. The rhythm surges in and out like a slow tide behind him as he seems to float a few inches off the ground, as lyrical as Lee Morgan with a gigantic, soft heart.
“East Gugs Skomline to Khaltsha,” named for a South African train journey, is built around a thick, bouncing bassline and powerful piano chords from Yenana, with the horns playing a unison chorus melody. Periodically, Tsoaeli sings a line or two in the hoarse voice of a village elder, with other members of the ensemble offering responses until it sounds like they’re sharing a story. Tsotetsi takes the first solo, a fiercely wailing journey from speedy bebop lines to honking free cries and back. Later, Sokuyeka steps forward for a short but potent Curtis Fuller-esque statement.
This is a long album; its 11 tracks sprawl out for a little over 90 minutes. But Tsoaeli’s ability to balance a stately, subdued mood (his bass sound is massive without being overwhelming; it seems to come from inside you as you listen) with just enough variety so that it doesn’t feel like endless variations on the same song makes it time well spent. There’s going to be a language barrier issue for most US listeners, as it’s sung in Xhosa. But that allows for a kind of freedom (albeit one based in ignorance), as the vocals become just another instrument. The title track is actually “Woza Moya (At This Point in Time),” which a South African journalist claims means “come to us, divine spirit” and, sure, that fits with the tone of the music — and that piece in particular, which has the softly swelling feel of Nduduzo Makhathini‘s work. No surprise, perhaps, as Makhathini often uses Sikade on drums and has a similar fondness for vocalists.
At This Point in Time ends with two tracks that sort of mirror each other. On “Siwa Sivuka,” we hear Tsoaeli singing again, softly and hoarsely, with Simani the sole horn and Yenana and Sikade filling out the ensemble. The album’s closing track, “Siyabulela,” features female singers Busisiwe Sibeko and Khumbuzile Dhlamini, their voices blending into one over just bass and piano. It’s a gentle, almost elegiac way to end the album, as though the musicians are floating back down to earth after 90 minutes in the sky. If you’re curious about what makes South African jazz unique, what gives it a regional identity as strong as New Orleans jazz or Chicago blues, this album would be a really good place to start.