JAZZ REVIEW / Onwards and backwards: Phil Johnson on Bheki Mseleku's triumphant big night out with Joe Henderson at the Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Online
Though he was wearing the regulation baggy suit that is the corporate uniform of the serious American jazzman, Bheki Mseleku remains an awkward, shambling and entirely lovable figure. He announces numbers with his back to the audience, forgets to wait for the applause to die down before calling out the musicians' names, and looks genuinely lost for words when the star guest Joe Henderson takes the stage. At the end, when the band members shake each other's hands with touching formality before lining up arm in arm to take their bows, the sight is genuinely moving. The applause, mingled with ululating cries from a sizeable contingent of expatriate South Africans, continues for a full five minutes before they return for the encore.

This was Mseleku's big night out; two years ago he was scraping a living teaching music to south London kids, now he's the hottest new name in jazz. He's going to be the featured pianist in Joe Henderson's band for a world tour, he's got Pharoah Sanders lined up as his own tenor player, and his album has received a five-star rating in Japan's Swing Journal. And he pretty much filled the Festival Hall. So what has he got?

As a pianist he swings like the clappers and plays impeccably within the tradition of American jazz, although he's a displaced Zulu from Durban. He writes flowing, memorable themes that invite from his players a furious rhythmic attack mixed with hard-blowing solo work, exactly what most jazz audiences want. The appeal is also partly that of the underdog; he missed the boat in the Eighties jazz revival - going into a Krishna temple in Balham while his young contemporaries were getting into boxy jackets and lager ads - but he persevered and, in a Horatio Alger-esque act of will, simply made himself great. He held out for the American rhythm section he knew he needed and went for world domination rather than endless pub gigs up and down the country.

What also helped fill the hall was Joe Henderson, now comfortably settled into his reign as the tenor saxophone voice of American jazz. When after three numbers he ambled onstage, dressed as if for one of the more fashionable golf courses, and began a gently understated version of 'Lush Life', accompanied by Mseleku at the piano, it was clear that he might be the real star of the night. Henderson takes it easy, seducing his sound from the instrument with delicate, courtly effects, low breathy moans alternated with swooning falsetto clusters of notes. On the title track of Mseleku's album Timelessness, Henderson switched the melody round to a paraphrase of Coltrane's 'Giant Steps' before stepping back from the mike as if not wanting to steal the show any more than he had done already.

Mseleku raises his game according to the company he keeps. Following Henderson's entrance, his playing became increasingly daring in its percussive weight, forcing the band to get further into the groove. It is, it has to be said, a great band. The flautist Kent Jordan dispels any Jethro Tull associations through the speed and power of his playing. Michael Bowie propels the music forward with a solid thumping bass, almost dancing cheek to cheek with the big fiddle. The drummer, Marvin Smith, was perfect; he even played an enjoyable solo. At the close Mseleku looked, as well he might, a little overwhelmed. Joe Henderson, meanwhile, looked as if he was ready for a quick round of golf.

(Photograph omitted)

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