Dave Evans – piano and songwriting
Nik Rutherford – guitar
Kenny Higgins – bass
Jonah Evans – drums
Thandanani Gumede – voice and songwriting
Nokuthula Zondi-Kamudyariwa – voice
Xolani Mbatha – baritone voice
The full house seemed to sense that something special would be forthcoming, but no one who hadn’t heard them perform before could quite anticipate the ways in which Ubunye would be remarkable. A standard jazz quartet comprising piano, bass, drums and guitar wasn’t merely accompanying a South African vocal trio—this was a single, seamless working band with its own unique musical vision and a wealth of its own material (in both Zulu and English) with which to express it. The first set opened with the singers on their own, showcasing the beauty of three-voice vocal harmonies, the like of which must be a rarity in a jazz venue, anywhere. And more’s the pity: the delivery was precise, powerful and unaffectedly beautiful, sustained by wonderfully controlled vibrato.
‘Powerful’ found new expression when the band joined the singers in numbers that were typically joyous and upbeat, but with shifts in emphasis between the band’s elements—and of course, with highlighted instrumental soloing. The reaction of the audience to each of the instrumentalists was uniformly uproarious; and once of the fascinations was that although they were clearly jazz musicians, they played very much in what might be called a pan-African idiom—that liquid, bubbling guitar style; bass playing that was improvised with a sensitivity to the vocal dynamics; and both acoustic and electric piano holding everything together.
The drummer deserves special mention. Jonah Evans, the son of pianist Dave Evans, was a last-minute substitute. His drumming was remarkable by any standard, but he is fifteen years old, and his playing displayed not only sensitivity and technical skill—but also a complete fit with the challenging musical idiom. After one of his solo outings, members of the band shook their heads in wonder, as did we all.
The audience was completely won over before the end of the first set, much abetted by polished but charming stage craft, and a carefully paced set list. The second set was perhaps closer to a more familiar jazz idiom, with more solo singing spotlighted—at times, not a million miles from soul, but with Ubunye’s own distinct slant. Perhaps the highlight of the second set was the number least characteristic of the entire performance: a quiet dedication to an absent member of the band. Over Dave Evans’ gentle, hymn-like chords, Thandanani Gumede sang in a heart-felt, near-falsetto voice that went straight to the heart. The hush in the audience was palpable.
But the evening ended as we had all hoped and expected: with a rollicking number that was somewhere between wild street party, carnival and revivalist meeting, with instrumentalists and singers alike at full stretch. In the moment, it seemed hard to believe that anything so propulsive and joyous could come to a halt. The same could be said about the applause and shouts that followed.
© J. Whitman