POP MUSIC / All the time in the world: Shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize in 1992, the jazz pianist Bheki Mseleku was suddenly the oldest newcomer in town. Phil Johnson found out what happened to him next

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The Independent Culture
Aptly enough for someone whose new album is called Timelessness, the jazz pianist Bheki Mseleku hasn't got a clue what time it is. 'What time is it?' he asks sleepily, when I phone him at noon to confirm our interview. When I get to his house in Clapham, he has decided to go to Cornwall to join his family for Christmas, though the time of the train is uncertain. There are no clocks in the house so in between packing his bags Mseleku phones the speaking clock. We continue the interview in the mini-cab to Paddington, with Bheki discoursing on the spiritual qualities of Glastonbury, which he first visited years ago. The driver braves the traffic at Clapham Junction so that Mseleku can call at his bank, though as it happens the bank is shut.

It's amazing that he ever makes it to a studio - but a good thing that he does. Timelessness is as fine a British jazz album as you'll hear all year, though how far it is British is uncertain; Mseleku is an exiled South African Zulu and the album was recorded in New York with an all-American cast for the French version of Polygram's Verve label. Whatever, the new album moves between easy-to-follow modern jazz grooves spiced with the pianist's South African musical heritage, and denser, more spiritual-sounding tunes influenced by the later work of John Coltrane, whose pianist, McCoy Tyner, is the most obvious point of reference for Mseleku's rolling, ecstatic style.

The progression from his independently produced debut, Celebration - which made the top 10 shortlist for 1992's Mercury Prize - is considerable. The common commercial ploy of beefing up a newcomer's reputation by matching him with more well-known sidemen and guests has been followed but Timelessness is unusual in that the result is almost wholly successful. The guests are a cut above the average too: saxophonists Joe Henderson and Pharoah Sanders, vocalist Abbey Lincoln and the rhythm team from Celebration, drummer Marvin 'Smitty' Smith and bassist Michael Bowie, plus cameo appearances by Elvin Jones, Rodney Kendrick and Kent Jordan. They sound as if they are a real part of the project and not merely along for the ride and the bucks.

In any case, the newcomer status ill-fits Mseleku, who has just become a grandfather. 'People see me as one of the up-and-coming musicians who have just started,' he says, 'but it's not true. I played the Newport Jazz Festival (with Philip Tabane's Malombo Jazz) in 1977, when most of the young musicians here were still at school. I've been playing music a long time now, in South Africa and in Sweden.' He should have signed a major label deal with Island's Antilles in 1987 but instead went into a Hare Krishna temple in Balham for two years and stopped playing. After re- emerging, he set up a series of Jazz Cafe appearances with Smith and Bowie, and intended to record them himself before the independent label World Circuit stepped in and funded Celebration. The Mercury Prize nomination led to major label interest once again.

Now Joe Henderson - the doyen of tenor sax players - has asked him to be his regular pianist, and Mseleku is suddenly up there with the heavy mob of US musicians. He isn't fazed by the change. There's common ground in the pervasive Africanisms of post- Coltrane jazz. 'If you listen to McCoy Tyner,' Mseleku says, 'you can hear he's influenced by African music too. He was playing differently with Art Farmer and Benny Golson before Coltrane, where he's playing pentatonic scales. All those 6/8 time signatures, like on 'My Favourite Things', are very African and very South African. I'm used to that kind of thing, I'm born into that environment, as well as into a Western environment of classical music.

'When people hear about South African musicians, they think about mbanqua and township music, but there are a lot of influences in South Africa: there are Muslims, there's Hindus, there's Europeans and there is a lot of classical music; there is African music too, of course. And we get jazz records as well, though the influence doesn't only come from that. Even if there were no jazz records coming through, we would have played jazz, just because of the classical music and the African rhythms.'

The presence of Pharoah Sanders on the album strengthened the link between Coltrane, with whom Sanders played, and South Africa. 'He was married to a South African and has a son, who has been there and is very interested in South African music, and he had heard of me,' Mseleku says. 'We're very close now, closer than the other guys, partly because of - how would you put it? - our spiritual inclinations. It was like destiny to me; it was bound to happen at some stage.'

In the mini-cab to Paddington, Mseleku grows more ethereal by the mile. 'Music is a spiritual artform,' he says. 'It never used to be a business and being a musician as a profession is an ongoing problem. My destiny is to be outside but to support a change in the consciousness of the world as the solution to our problems, on an international basis. In South Africa, people who have experienced the apartheid system, the people who practised it, are sick in their heads; they need healing, they need cleansing and purification and they need a lot of love. But also the victims of the system, they need healing too before they are fit to run the country by themselves. I don't speak English properly so it's hard to talk about this, but we need healing, all of us.'

'Timelessness' is released on Verve on 14 Jan. A 'South Bank Show' on Mseleku's life is to be broadcast on 6 Feb. He performs at the Royal Festival Hall, London, with the saxophonist Joe Henderson on 27 Feb. Box office: 071-928 8800

(Photograph omitted)