Album Review | Bheki Mseleku’s ‘Beyond the Stars’

Tapestry Works’ debut album is a previously unreleased 2003 solo London session from the late pianist. A discovery rather than a reissue, it is a major contribution to the jazz archive.

Nobody really knows who originated the phrase “jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny”. But it can’t be denied that international music labels have what might be seen as an unhealthy interest in disinterring and resurrecting old jazz. Sometimes, that reflects a desire to evade rights and royalties issues that could be costly on more recent artists’ work. 

But even where it doesn’t, the practice reveals the legacy industry’s persistent bias towards known archive names that sell, however long departed. Witness the fanfares for John Coltrane’s Blue World, Thelonious Monk’s Palo Alto and Miles Davis’ Rubberband. All are unarguably worth discovering, but recorded decades ago.

Today’s lesser-known players – possibly just as exciting as Trane, Monk and Miles were in their day – represent a commercial risk such labels often aren’t prepared to take. Either small independent labels do the work, or individual artists produce and promote themselves through online platforms yielding pitifully meagre revenue. 

Sadly, the second situation holds equally true for South Africa. But fears about a focus on archive music shouldn’t.

We’re in the paradoxical situation of possessing a unique historic jazz tradition whose potential market profile was strangled by apartheid’s policy of “retribalisation”. More than half a century of astonishingly inventive music-making sometimes went unrecorded. When discs were pressed, it was often in limited runs, constrained by the cash flow of independents or the policies of bigger labels facing markets fragmented into artificial ethnic categories by the regime. 

Discs got damaged and broken – or discarded as excess baggage when Black families were forcibly removed. Some labels, such as Gallo, maintained a library; others went bust and disappeared; masters were lost. It’s unknown how many of the SABC’s transcription tapes, another potential source of archive, were shredded when the broadcaster scoured its Augean stable as the apartheid regime fell.

So for South Africa, recovering the jazz archive isn’t an outgrowth of commercial conservatism. It’s an essential component of our ongoing identity work.

Related article:

The project has a growing number of helpers. The As Shams label has begun restoring its extensive archives and has already reissued some albums and made restored masters available to other companies. These include the well established Matsuli Music label, run by South African jazz and popular music enthusiasts Chris Albertyn and Matt Temple, based in Durban and London respectively, as well as Eric Warner’s eclectic Toronto independent Wearbusybodies.

Now a new label has been founded, with its debut release a major contribution to the archive. It’s not a reissue but a discovery, a previously unreleased 2003 solo London session from late pianist Bheki Mseleku, called Beyond the Stars.

A tapestry of tracks 

Tapestry Works was co-founded by Fred Bolza, who heads jazz management company New Soil, and Francis Gooding, a scholar, reviewer and jazz enthusiast. 

Gooding says much of what the label has planned “will also be South African jazz, both old and new”, though they’ll look at other sources. “We want to release music that really needs to be heard and documented,” he says. “Beyond the Stars was too important to go unheard.” Although there had been general discussions before, “we founded [Tapestry Works] specifically to make sure this recording could be heard”.

The cover of Beyond the Stars, the debut album from record label Tapestry Works featuring Bheki Mseleku on the piano. (Original photograph by Siphiwe Mhlambi)

The London session had been set up by Mseleku’s close friend, musician and music scholar Eugene Skeef, shortly after he had assisted the pianist’s return to London from a new South Africa that had given him a cold welcome, with few opportunities to teach, perform or even earn. Skeef’s liner notes tell the full story: Mseleku had become depressed, was neglecting his health and needed a more supportive context.

Gooding learned about the tapes through his friendship with Skeef, established while researching a book on South African jazz in exile. “Eugene trusted Fred and I with it. It was an enormous honour, coming from someone so close to Bheki,” says Gooding.

The half-dozen tracks Mseleku laid down are a tantalising mix. Some are clearly compositions he’d been refining for a while. I hesitate to call them “finished”, because for Mseleku no composition was ever finished. Cosmic Dance treats the strong rhythms and vocalised melodies of his Celebration-era sound to an even more nuanced sonic palette. The marabi structure of Ekhaya reflects the same relish for simultaneously respecting and subverting jazz history he let rip on The Drive’s 1975 Way Back Fifties

Tunes, no titles

When I knew Mseleku in Botswana in 1985 – he was there working on Hugh Masekela’s Waiting for the Rain album – he would convene late-night symposiums at the Gaborone National Museum, charming his way past dour security guards to the best piano in town. In the aftermath of the devastating South African Defence Force raid that June, those sessions offered communal therapy. He’d bring his own chords from music he was developing, or ask fellow musicians to suggest a tune, any tune, and then open discussion space for hours on the myriad directions in which you could take those chords.

He does something similar here with the track iSango (The Gateway), which starts out as a gentle exploration of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s 1967 pop standard The Look of Love. Being Mseleku, it doesn’t stay in Dusty Springfield territory for long. Soon, the song has darkened its mood before dissolving into a waterfall of world-travelling modes that end their journey in a complex, resonant South Africa.

At those museum get-togethers, he rarely presented tunes with titles. Another musician might say “that sounds like…” or “it reminds me of…” and Mseleku would eagerly assent: “Yes, that’s a good title. Let’s call it that.” Skeef says that habit continued. “I named everything in response to Bheki’s request. For many years, Bheki would ask me for titles of some of his tunes … [We] discussed his vision for the tracks and the album, and that’s how I contributed the titles.”

So those titles shouldn’t be read as limiting labels. If iZanusi (The Diviners) employs amahubo’s structure of traditional Zulu music, making the allusion an apt one, that doesn’t reduce the composition to programme music. Mseleku saw a wider sound horizon and one of those far-sighted village elders could well be, as Abdullah Ibrahim once reflected, Duke Ellington. 

The final track, Transcendence, feels even more open, what pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, who also contributed liner notes, calls “deliberately modulating between what exists in the present and future possibilities”. Hearing Mseleku exploring pianistic options and playing out where the ideas take him like this offers irreplaceable insight into his process.

When an artist dies, creative control passes into the hands of others who may not share their vision. That’s another potential problem with the rediscovery and reissue industry. Beyond the Stars benefits from the oversight of Skeef, who produced the original session and was a close enough friend to intuit the production values Mseleku would have wanted. The sound is superb. We can hear the wood and wires, felt and fingers that shape solo piano. Besides, Mseleku was never overly precious about his music. His desire was to set it free into the world. He’d be glad these ideas are finally flying, but not content, because he’d be intensely curious about where they might go next. Beyond the Stars is the right title.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.