Phola Mamba's Lebombo has matured into a world-class jazz unit that bases all of its music on South African kwela music, a mixture of folk songs, township jive, tribal chants, and modern jazz improvisation. Mamba's ensemble has transformed itself in recent years into being a primarily European ensemble, with him at the helm and countryman and pianist Mike Del Ferro lending a hand. It has also grown quite large, numbering ten members. New instrumentation in Lebombo, showcased here on "Zipisi," includes the accordion of Alexei Levin and Sean Bergin's flute and pennywhistle playing -- when he is not part of the saxophone section (as showcased on "Egoli"). With three saxophones, and sometimes four, along with trombone, piano, accordion, acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, Lebombo is a big band, and Mamba has made the transition from being a composer for small ensembles to one who has all the advanced harmonic and lyrical knowledge of a large band leader. His compositions, such as the rhythmically intense "Cebisile," graft the melody of jive onto a zydeco rhythm and Kenton-esque harmonic architecture, where rhythms collide in mid-measure to open a space for the trombone that solos against Del Ferro's piano. Elsewhere, on "Duze," an acoustic guitar creates a waltz overlaid on a South African street song, and places emphasis on soloists to create and maintain a melodic balance against the rhythm section -- no less than four instrumentalists solo and all succeed in extending the simple melody into a complete harmonic reworking of the lyric phrase into a deftly phrased and complexly played R&B theme that still holds the major triad of the folk song in its root. Of the six Lebombo recordings, Nabakitsi is easily the most profound in its far-reaching and completely realized vision of swinging South African traditional musics and the freewheeling complexities of the jazz tradition.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek