The pianist, composer, arranger and singer Thandi Ntuli has made 2017 her breakout year. She has long been whispered about in jazz circles as one to watch. But with the release of her album and milestone performances under her belt, she has finally taken her place at the main table in South African jazz. It is perhaps not surprising that her debut album is titled The Offering because it comes across as a highly considered set of songs that seek to present this major new voice in South African music.
Hers is a sound that is at once traditional, but also inherently urban. Those who know the sounds of the township will immediately know that not only can she swing, but she can jive as well. Her uncle was in the band Harare and its experimental jazz-funk has left its traces in some passages of her songs.
Those who have followed the career of Alice Coltrane will immediately pick up the complexity in the voicing of Ntuli’s compositions, as well as the way in which the music is deeply transcendental. It’s clear, too, that this is a pianist who has studied and played classical music. Like Nina Simone, her improvisations are based on rich allusions to songs that are deeply embedded in our subconscious. Listen to the song Cosmic Light and you immediately grasp the rich musical heritage she is able to draw on.
Ntuli says that growing up in a musical family shaped her sense of how jazz should be approached and from the joy and harmony in her singing, you can feel how the family’s singing has been infused into her own songs.
She is one of a new generation of pianists that includes Nduduzo Makhathini who are quickly reshaping South African music. They all bring to popular jazz a formal approach that stems from their university education. But they are also drawing from the ‘traditional’ sources that invariably enrich their music and give it a colour that is uniquely South African.
Still only 30, Ntuli has already played at major events like the Cape Town Jazz Festival and has also featured at venues like The Orbit in Johannesburg as well as Nirox Park at the Cradle Of Humankind. Whether she is playing solo or with a big band, there’s a satisfying confidence in her approach to the piano. When she attacks the keys or she whispers to them, you can tell that she has studied the music and knows how to tease out its secrets.
Ntuli started her musical journey very early and before she was five she was already taking classical lessons on piano. She later read for a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Performance at UCT and it is these twin influences that shape her distinct voice. She seems to thrive in collaboration and has already worked with Neo Muyanga, Steve Dyer, Marcus Wyatt and Siya Makuzeni amongst others.
Her time has arrived and her cosmic light is ready to shine a spotlight on South Africa’s New Age jazz scene.