Thandi Ntuli & Carlos Niño: Rainbow Revisited

Pianist-singer Thandi Ntuli is not the only South African artist reinventing a modern music that some critics want to keep locked in a box called “jazz.” The sound of contemporary South Africa is a global beacon for potential musical futures precisely because so many artists entrenched in the country’s great improvised tradition, with its beautiful Xhosa and Zulu melodies, keep pushing beyond the accepted meaning of that four-letter word.

Ntuli, a 36-year-old emissary of a Johannesburg scene gone global, is a standard-bearer for experiments at jazz’s margins. A classical piano prodigy who turned down a Berklee scholarship to study at University of Cape Town, she has collaborated with house producers and joined London saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings’ Ancestors group for a spell. Ntuli’s previous studio albums as leader—The Offering (2014), Exiled (2018), and Blk Elijah & the Children of Meroë (2022)—exhibited visionary scope: piles of instruments and musicians, arrangements that took advantage of their broad tonal and harmonic ranges, and compositions that veered between pop standards, spiritual thought bubbles, and theatrical narratives, plus a voice and musical leadership to carry them all.

Rainbow Revisited edits down such big-budget ambitions. It is primarily a solo piano-and-voice session, recorded one Venice Beach afternoon with percussionist/vibes’n’chimes orchestrater Carlos Niño lightly guiding and participating, at times bringing minor overdubs and post-production into the mix. The music is spare, laser focused on those incandescent gospel melodies that feel like a Mzansi jazz birthright, and on ways to minimally ornament them for a broader, internationalist (Anthem and otherwise) audience.

Such embellishment doesn’t obscure Ntuli’s expansiveness. It shows her power in a different light—in this case, bathed in the Golden State’s sunrises and sunsets. Ntuli must have been all in, because she named new original tracks after both. The opening “Sunrise (in California)” is a crisp take for piano and voice, abstracting those gorgeous melodies into cubes; later “Sunset (in California)” focuses on folky, melancholy vocal improvisations that draw a direct line between Ntuli’s approach and that of her onetime employer, the great singer Thandiswa “King Tha” Mazwai. On the other side of the spectrum, there are studio experiments whose titles nod to their construction: “Breath and Synth” and “Voice and Tongo.” These airy, atonal rhythm miniatures, straight out of the Carlos Niño & Friends almanac, allow for playful exhalation. In all this newfound space, Ntuli seems unencumbered, free from the constraints often imposed by jazz’s institutional trappings.

Yet despite the very different context in which she’s presented on Rainbow Revisited, this Thandi Ntuli is no different than the South African jazz star in the making. Experimenting using traditional tools is at the core of her practice. The title track is a testament to such a strategy. It’s an emotional strip-down of “Rainbow (Skit),” from the sprawling Exiled, rethinking electric bassist Benjamin Jephta’s dexterous runs, along with her own synths, drum-machine programming, and, especially, lyrical literalism. The revisit is a slowed-down acoustic-piano reading that foregrounds the song’s core melody, modally improvising on its chords, akin to Abdullah Ibrahim’s forceful solo-piano turns. Here, the vocal is almost completely wordless, save for a yearning, twisting expression of the titular refraction (the “rainbow” being South Africa’s national post-Apartheid metaphor).

There is also “Nomoyoyo,” a gorgeous kwela-like melody written by Ntuli’s grandfather, Levi Godlib Ntuli, that is her family’s anthem. In Ntuli’s hands and throat, the song exudes heritage, and age, but also simple harmonic beauty. It is a sonic reflection of the past century, and one wonders at the associations a song like that might bring when publicly performed in South Africa. Here, in between two edit collages—full of synths, samples of waves lapping a shore, piano, and backwards percussion—“Nomoyoyo” feels like an immovable rock, definitively more “jazz” than most sounds here, but unwilling to be bound to it.

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Thandi Ntuli & Carlos Niño: Rainbow Revisited