FOR MANY American listeners, South African jazz is synonymous with the music of two of the country's most famous exiles: fluegelhorn player Hugh Masekela and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (who first recorded in this country under the name Dollar Brand). With the release of the ongoing "African Jazz Collection" series, though, record producer Koloi Lebona, who helped shape Paul Simon's album "Graceland" and launch Jonathan Butler's career, hopes to add some more names to the short list, including Alexandra Township alto saxophonist Barney Rachabane and Capetown multi-instrumentalist McCoy Mrubata. Both grew up and continue to live under apartheid. Here's a look at some recent releases:
"Uptownship" (RCA Novus). This time out, Masekela, who performs Saturday at Kilimanjaro, has fashioned a loosely autobiographical album -- a cross-cultural tribute to both American soul music, containing songs by Smokey Robinson and Gamble and Huff, and the South African township jazz he was drawn to as a youngster.
Not surprisingly, nothing on the record possesses the spirit and charm of Masekela's native music. Although he and several members of his band Kalahari bring a contemporary luster to "Egoli," "Now or Never" and other township songs of the 1940s and '50s, the result is irresistibly danceable music just the same. Festive horns, sparkling guitars, churning rhythms and rousing chants sung by cast members of "Sarafina!" all make for a joyous sound. Another highlight is a moving version of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry," -- sadly, the only cut on the album that features Masekela on lead vocals.
Unfortunately, the American side of the coin isn't nearly as appealing. Despite Masekela's obvious affection for Philly soul and Motown, and his mellow, melodic ease on fluegelhorn, his cover versions of Gamble and Huff's "Don't Know Me By Now" and Robinson's "Oo, Oo, Baby," are strictly Top 40 fare.
"Mindif" (Enja). Far more consistent is Ibrahim's "Mindif," the soundtrack to the French film "Chocolat." The opening tunes, "Earth Bird" and "African Market," quickly establish the music's wide-ranging dynamics -- a haunting, barely sketched-out melody is followed by a vibrantly revolving saxophone theme that draws its power from both South African jazz and American R&B traditions. But it's the album's title track, a poetic piano offering inspired by the landscape in the north of Cameroon, where "Chocolat" was filmed, that captures the prevailing tone of Ibrahim's score -- its exotic lyricism, subdued rhythms and rich acoustic textures.
"African River" (Enja). This, the latest album by Ibrahim and his band Ekaya, is nearly as evocative, though the accent is more on the horn section and Duke Ellington-like orchestrations. The band gets off to a winning start with the festive township tune "Toi Toi," featuring a tart soprano sax solo by Horace Alexander Young and an aggressive rhythm section that keeps tugging at the horns. By contrast, both the album's title tune -- a lovely, sinuous theme highlighted by Robin Eubanks's fluid trombone -- and the languid ballad "Joan-Capetown" tenderly reflect Ibrahim's yearning for his homeland.
Other Ibrahim compositions, including the sumptuously harmonized "Duke 88" and the flute reverie "Sweet Samba," expand the album's thematic scope considerably and further display the band's unusually colorful instrumentation, ranging from tuba to piccolo.
"Deliverance" (BMG Jive). There's not much to get excited about on "Deliverance." In fact, at a scant 33 minutes long, there's not much of anything apart from a few catchy melodies and the crisp attack of Butler's acoustic guitar. Subtract a cameo appearance by Masekela and the insinuating vocal chant "Welcome Home" and what remains is mostly middle-of-the road guitar pop a` la Earl Klugh. Hummable stuff, mind you, but seldom more than that.
"Barney's Way" (BMG Jive). After collaborating with Masekela on several projects, Rachabane went off to form his own band. On this, his third album as a leader, he contributes most of the tunes and plays alto sax in a manner that often recalls David Sanborn's R&B updates. If that doesn't sound all that adventurous -- well, it isn't. And yet like so many of Sanborn's recordings, it's catchy, accessible and still earthy enough to be seen as a descendent of the kind of music the late R&B sax great King Curtis made in his prime. The highlights, including the title track, are all found on side two where some refreshingly straight-up jazz is briefly featured.
"Firebird" (BMG Jive). Given a little exposure, Mrubata could give Sanborn and his peers a run for the money, too. His strength lies primarily in his melodic gifts and his versatility as a tenor, alto and soprano saxophonist. Tunesmiths Jabu Nkosi and Paul Hamner have prvided him here with an abundance of sunny, radio-ready themes, and the arrangements get an additional boost from Nkosi's quirky keyboards. But if Mrubata has anything on his mind other than an all-out assault on the pop-jazz charts, there's little evidence of it here.