Review: Thandi Ntuli’s double consciousness on ‘Live at Jazzwerkstatt’

“There are maps to the Door of No Return. The physical door. They are well worn, gone over by cartographer after cartographer, refined from Ptolemy’s Geographia to orbital photographs and magnetic field imaging satellites. But to the Door of No Return which is illuminated in the consciousness of Blacks in the Diaspora there are no maps. This door is not mere physicality. It is a spiritual location. It is also perhaps a psychic destination. Since leaving was never voluntary, return was, and still may be, an intention, however deeply buried. There is as it says no way in; no return.”  —  A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne Brand

The loop, or noose, of displacement is exacting in its grip. And yet, the will to live dictates that we struggle for room to breath. This analogy, applied in reference to both form and intent, seems to find easy correlation with Thandi Ntuli’s new album, Live at Jazzwerkstatt .

The artist, coming off the back of her breakthrough second album, Exile, continues the trajectory of facing her limitations and fears head on.  The tenacity on show is infectious, enabling the artist to cover what is, for her, novel ground in terms of compositional scope.

Recorded in March 2019 in Bern, Switzerland, the album sees the pianist performing with a group she named the Thandi Ntuli Art Ensemble, a 14-strong unit including brass and string sections with whom she workshopped the new arrangements, as part of this artist-led festival package.

Following so closely on Exile, Live at Jazzwerkstatt inevitably functions as a pivot, with the artist taking the opportunity to recontextulise the narrative thrust and tenor of her earlier album’s sprawl. In its expressive leaps of faith, Exile sets the stage. “The thing I found most challenging was not so much what I was trying musically — although some of it was because I felt there were things that didn’t fall into what jazz was supposed to be; the story felt close, and putting the story across was challenging in terms of the vulnerability it demanded of me. With music, there is always a vulnerability, but words solidify ideas to a point where you can’t leave it to the imagination.”

With Exile, Ntuli says she found validation in the reception of some of the spoken word interventions, in particular those of Lebo Mashile, although she had been hesitant to include the poet’s words, worrying that she’d be seen as combative or didactic. Mashile’s performance on The Void is as devastating in its execution as it is in its imagery; gathering momentum in its epic sweep, seeming to flow from within the bowels of the feathery, flute-driven score as opposed to skirting languidly on top of it. 

Conjuring images of “boys who hide inside their minds, who run across borders, who live in dimensions that should have remained in the womb”, it is an emotional high point of Exile, message and medium forming one perfect storm. “Lebo’s approach to it liberated me by giving me the courage to put out things that might not be taken so well,” Ntuli says. “I’ve been amazed to see how many men  have taken to that poem, even though I thought it might touch a raw nerve with them. Sometimes you think you are so compassionate by not saying certain things …” 

Building a compositional vocabulary

Live at Jazzwerkstatt continues in the direction of building Ntuli’s compositional vocabulary. “When I approach arranging, I’m always thinking about what the song is saying and how the instruments at my disposal help me convey it,” she says.

Given the format of the Jazzwerkstatt festival, in which artists get to choose their preferred collaborations from a common pool of talent (with guidance from the festival personnel), Ntuli was able to pick from a list of musicians who would, more or less, fit her own musical sensibility. She had sent some music five weeks ahead of showtime, and had two days of rehearsals when meeting the unit face to face. 

From here, she faced the challenge of writing string and brass parts head on. “It was my first time writing for strings,” Ntuli says. “There were a lot of mistakes on the score. But they were very attentive to what I was feeding out, checking [in] — “Is this is what you intended to write?” —  and they would feed back with ideas. Someone who was the section leader ended up communicating to the string section that they had to reinterpret what was written. The notes were there, but in terms of how to play what was there, that was all workshopped.”

Ntuli says bassist Shane Cooper, with whom they’ve shared many a bandstand, was key in helping to orientate drummer Rico Baumann around a workable sense of groove. “I met him at the festival for the first time — I was watching videos of drummers who were available,” she says. “Knowing what type of music he’s into, if I had come across someone who is into straight-ahead and nothing else, it wouldn’t have been a good fit for my music. He kept coming to me even after rehearsal, checking in with what I was thinking about in terms of the groove. He’d been listening to Sphelelo [Mazibuko] who is on the album [Exile].”

On Live at Jazzwerkstatt, Baumann plays with a great dynamism, disappearing into the soft spaces and lurching with a unique gait into the segments that require more brawn — a little diagonal to Mazibuko’s tidal flows of rhythm. All the while, Cooper provides intuitive foundational beds for him to land on.

All this deliberate groundwork serves what is, essentially, a circular narrative; one in which the present tries to outrun the past, but keeps coming up short.

A darker meta-narrative

Within the  story of Ntuli’s personal search for a bigger, more dynamic voice, is a darker meta-narrative about a people entrapped by flag freedom. Ntuli and the ensemble  — sonically and lyrically — gesture at the promises of the new country, even signifying an optimism, a desire to meet its ideals halfway. Musically, there is a logical linearity to the sequencing, a blooming of hope in narrative terms, but, metaphorically, this too is soon kicked to the ground. 

For example, there is a double consciousness suggested by the ebullient sonic register of  Rainbow (Live), on the one hand, and its jaded lyrics on the other.

I see a rainbow with colours soiled, exchange of promise the sale is void.

Who was the painter that changed its face, took all your heros to give it fame? They talk of freedom, what do they know? This integration is all for show.

No understanding inherit blood, and when the bomb ticks rebuild those walls.”

It is a disappointment and doubt suggested by the breakdowns and the twists in music, neutering the initial  optimism of the new country’s incoherent foundational myth.

The take-aways from the project have been numerous for Ntuli, especially given that she didn’t walk into the process expecting to walk out with a live album (it all happened sort of retrospectively). Among the nuggets is a sense of having achieved a new set of skills with which to return to the studio. “When you think of [re]arranging music, that’s how producers think in studio, but they have a lot of tools available to them. I feel this tunes me more into that kind of element. It felt like a production: the music was not just melodies and solos, but it brought the feelings along richly.”

The radiance of this turn has been enough for Ntuli to temper the Covid-19 blues, somewhat; taking a part in some live-streamed concerts, but still allowing herself time to ponder what it all means, while flexing her pen for other artists. 

“I must honestly say that I don’t enjoy it, per se,” she says of streamed gigs. “I find it very hard to imagine energy that is not there. It almost feels like rehearsing a conversation with someone who is not there and imagining their responses. The vitality of an audience: you sense it when you play for different crowds. They feel different, and yet we don’t think of the audience as a vital part. How do I unlearn this part of what an audience/performance used to be?”

Whatever the future holds, and however long the future is held hostage, Ntuli is not worried about falling off the radar. “People have been relying on doccies, series, books — whatever it is — artistic things to keep themselves balanced. I’m worried about making sure we get through this and being able to help people.  I foresee a need for what we do as artists, for whatever after corona is.”

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