South African pianist Andile Yenana first attracted attention as a sideman on Zim Ngqawana's early recordings, where his McCoy Tyner-ish playing served as a perfect complement to Ngqawana's Coltrane-like energy. In 2002 Sheer Sound released his debut, We Used to Dance, which drew upon these themes. But it would be a mistake to categorize Yenana as a modal player locked in that mold, because he's capable of much more. His followup, the mostly quintet album Who's Got the Map?, offers plenty of evidence.
Witness the Monkish clusters and irregular comping on the opening “Pedal Point,” which centers around a harmonized theme by the horns (saxophonist Sydney Mnisi and trumpeter Sydney Mavudla) until Yenana steps out on his own into a swirling, syncopated, swinging solo statement. The pianist is at his best when he experiments with time and dynamics, introducing a heavy dose of punchy angularity into otherwise straightforward music. The loping funk of “Mr. Harris,” which appears later on the album, has a similar effect.
There's not a lot of ego on Who's Got the Map?, because in many places the horns and the rhythm section lock together quite tightly. Yenana did compose all the pieces except Sydney Mnisi's two “Etudes” and Sazi Dlamini's “Umunyu,” but his writing serves the group sound. “Dream Walker,” a slow, shimmering tune, swings lightly and draws quiet energy from Mavudla's warm, smeary trumpet and Mnisi's rough-edged, blues-tinged saxophone.
The title of this release is much more of a question than can be answered in 68 minutes of music. South African jazz has developed its own distinct character, perhaps most visible as a distinct entity here on the patient harmonized cycles of “Rwanda,” but it's always drawn from sources across the Atlantic and north of the equator.
Andile Yenana does not hesitate to leap right into traditional hard bop and modal playing, though he does stretch the mold at times and plays in an unusually polyphonic fashion. The solo piano piece “South Central” draws from the watery, impressionistic sound of Debussy and Ravel in its heavy pedaling, blurred phrases, and extended arpeggios, but Yenana's harmonies are less than pristine and his timing is sometimes quite unpredictable.
By Nils Jacobson
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