Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O: True Story review – emotive South African jazz with a bite

Estimated read time 3 min read

The South African jazz scene has exploded with fresh talent in recent years, from artists such as Johannesburg collective Spaza, who have developed an urgent form of social consciousness free jazz, to pianist Thandi Ntuli’s minimal and affective melodies and drummers Asher Gamedze and Tumi Mogorosi’s thrashing maximalism.

True Story album artView image in fullscreen

At the softer end of the spectrum sits trombonist and Spaza member Malcolm Jiyane. Harking back to the country’s popular jazz pioneers in the mid-tempo, melodically rich work of Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela, Jiyane’s 2021 debut Umdali found its strengths in subtlety, building bright, emotive soundscapes from group vocals, horn fanfares and undulating rhythms.

His latest album, True Story, also prioritises feeling over technicality. The uptempo, funk-inflected polyrhythms of MaBrrrrrrrrr and the uplifting horn and vocal harmonies on Baby Ngimanzi Wuthando evoke Umdali’s joyful compositions. But elsewhere, Jiyane and his band Tree-O journey into darker territory – intended to reflect the reality of poverty in South Africa – stripping back his arrangements to reveal a newly emotive sound.

Opener Memory Is the Weapon sets the tone with its spatters of rain sounds, piano dirge and synthesised yearning vocalisations, while Global Warming develops the motif through drummer Lungile Kunene’s loose groove and Nosisi Ngakane’s echoing, operatic backing vocals. This brooding palette reaches its peak on closer Name It Later, distorting Jiyane’s unsettling vocal crescendo over piano phrases that mirror the record’s opening to produce a cinematic sense of longing.

True Story is a record of intriguing contrasts, touching on lightness and hope but largely dwelling in a doleful melodic world. Its downbeat energy is a successful confrontation with the circumstances that inspired it.

Also out this month

Tanzanian singers The Zawose Queens release their debut album, Maisha (Real World), blending the polyphonic vocal traditions of the Gogo people with bass-heavy production. The result is deeply expressive and packed with rhythmic punches, peaking on the fiery call-and-response of Mapendo. Gqom pioneer DJ Lag’s second album, The Rebellion (Black Major), polishes his genre’s distinctly raw, bass-heavy sound in favour of sparkling synths to produce an uneven collection of commercial tracks cut with gems such as the menacing Ubhiya. Indian classical vocalist Niloy Ahsan delivers a remarkable feat of technical and emotive virtuosity on Breathing Raga (Worlds Within Worlds), performing a flawless rendition of the raga Bhairav, a composition evoking the hazy tranquillity of sunrise.


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