The 21st century South African pianist, composer, producer, and arranger focuses on the spiritual side of jazz, fusing modern sensibilities with ideas inspired by his Zulu heritage. Following consecutive appearances at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2005 and 2006, Makhathini built a network of contacts on both the local and global jazz scenes. From 2007 onward, he toured Europe and the United States with the Zimology Quartet, and played on African Time, an award-winning 2012 album by his bandmate Herbie Tsoaeli. Makhathini’s production career took off the following year when his wife Omagugu’s Zilindile won Metro FM’s Contemporary Jazz award and Lindiwe Maxolo’s Time was nominated for a SAMA. Makhathini set up Gundu Entertainment, which facilitated his rich career as a recording artist — he released six albums in a two-year period — as well as collaborations with Wynton Marsalis and Shabaka Hutchings. Universal Music signed Makhathini in 2018, and 2020′s Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds was issued on the storied Blue Note label. Two years later he followed it with In the Spirit of NTU, the debut release from Blue Note Africa.
Makhathini’s mother, Nomajerusalema, initially taught him piano, and his late father Sibusiso played guitar and sang in the Maskandi style. In addition to his parents’ influence, music was also a major part of his community. He was from a strictly Christian family, and used to travel to every church within walking distance just to hear the music, often leaving before the sermon began. He also explored local Zulu heritage, finding deep inspiration in the fact that the African warrior code valued music for healing and motivational purposes. Here began a love of philosophy that went on to permeate his later job as a teacher, a vocation which ultimately ran concurrently with his music career.
In 2001 he left home after receiving music tuition at the Durban Institute of Technology; by 2005, he had earned a diploma in jazz piano. In 2006 he toured Europe with the Xhosa artist Simphiwe Dana and collaborated with such revered musicians as Herbie Hancock and Miriam Makeba at Basel’s Avo Session Jazz Festival. His first appearance on disc came as part of the 2007 Zimology Quartet release Live at Bird’s Eye, Switzerland; he toured with the quartet for many years and established himself as a producer. In characteristically ambitious fashion, he issued and promoted his first two albums — Mother Tongue and Sketches of Tomorrow — on the same day in 2014. Listening to the Ground, a sequel of sorts to Mother Tongue, appeared the following year before he won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award. The 2017 All Africa Music Awards also decorated him after his involvement with Wisdom of Elders, a Hutchings-fronted project with Shabaka and the Ancestors. The major-label deal that followed led to exposure on a larger scale and within a one-month period in 2020, he contributed Fender Rhodes to another Ancestors release, We Are Sent Here by History, and released his own Modes of Communication.
Makhathini followed that release with In the Spirit of NTU (2022), the inaugural release for Blue Note’s newly formed imprint Blue Note Africa. The pianist assembled a band from some of South Africa’s most exciting young musicians including saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, trumpeter Robin Fassie Kock, vibraphonist Dylan Tabisher, bassist Stephen de Souza, percussionist Gontse Makhene, and drummer Dane Paris, as well as special guest vocalists Omagugu Makhathini and Germany’s Anna Widauer, and American saxophonist Jaleel Shaw. ~ James Wilkinson