Bheki Mseleku fused elements of traditional African township music, American bebop, and his own devout, far-reaching spirituality to emerge as the premier South African jazz pianist of his generation.
Born Bhekumuzi Hyacinth Mseleku in Durban, South Africa on March 3, 1955, he was the son of a music teacher. Still, the senior Mseleku was a deeply religious man who feared any of his seven children would gravitate towards a life as a professional musician and kept the family’s piano locked away, eventually chopping up the instrument for firewood. Mseleku’s mother nevertheless slipped him the key whenever her husband was away from home, and over time the boy taught himself to play — he even adapted his emerging style after a go-cart accident claimed the top joints of two fingers, compensating for his reduced hand span by developing a more accelerated and efficient technique. By his early teens, Mseleku was gigging on electric organ as a member of a semi-professional local group dubbed the Expressions, and in 1975 he relocated to Johannesburg to join the hard bop unit the Drive. He later co-founded the progressive jazz project Spirits Rejoice alongside bassist Sipho Gumede before signing on with multi-instrumentalist Philip Tabane in his popular group Malombo. Mseleku first earned international attention during a performance with Malombo at the 1977 Newport Jazz Festival. At the event, he also met his boyhood idol McCoy Tyner as well as harpist Alice Coltrane, who later gave him the mouthpiece employed by her late husband John during the sessions that yielded the jazz landmark A Love Supreme.
Mseleku returned to Johannesburg to find its oppressive apartheid culture virtually unbearable, and after a brief tenure in Botswana where he supported trumpeter Hugh Masekela, he and percussionist/composer Eugene Skeef relocated to Stockholm. While Mseleku occasionally collaborated with expatriate trumpeter Don Cherry, he spent much of his time in Sweden living hand to mouth, struggling with diabetes and other physical ailments. He moved to London in 1985, and two years later finally earned the acclaim and recognition long due him after pianist Horace Silver helped him land a two-week residency at the famed jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. Even Scott, who rarely spoke to the media, rang up jazz critics to enthuse about Mseleku’s performances. Often playing unaccompanied, with a tenor saxophone (his alternative weapon of choice) cradled in his lap, the pianist’s deeply meditative and technically flawless sets quickly became the stuff of legend, attracting fellow jazz players spanning from Courtney Pine to Steve Williamson, both of whom later guested on Mseleku’s star-studded 1991 debut LP Celebration. The album’s lengthy gestation was a result of Mseleku’s adverse reaction to his newfound fame: later diagnosed as bipolar, he followed his Ronnie Scott’s residency by fleeing London for the safety and comfort of a Buddhist temple, living for two years without a telephone or even a piano. The critical success of Celebration nevertheless returned Mseleku to the spotlight, and in 1992 he issued his second LP, Meditations, documenting a live solo set at the annual Bath International Music Festival. That same year he was also featured on ITV’s The South Bank Show.
As Mseleku’s international profile grew, he toured Europe, the U.S., the Far East, and India, and guested on recording sessions headlined by Pine, fellow South African Sibongile Khumalo, and others. His third album, 1994’s Verve label effort Timelessness, featured collaborations with American jazz icons including saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson, drummer Elvin Jones, and vocalist Abbey Lincoln. In its wake, Mseleku also joined Henderson’s touring band before traveling to Los Angeles and teaming with Ornette Coleman’s one-time rhythm section of bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins for the 1995 LP Star Seeding. For this third and final Verve date, 1997’s Beauty of Sunrise, Mseleku assembled another all-star unit, this one including Jones and Coltrane’s saxophonist son Ravi. By this time he was again headquartered in Johannesburg, but the experience took its toll on his psyche. Mseleku’s generosity quickly depleted his major-label earnings, and robbers stole his prized Coltrane mouthpiece, a loss that haunted him for the remainder of his life. In 2003 Mseleku recorded his final album Home at Last, a session that paired him with local musicians. Though cited by critics as the purest distillation of his singular aesthetic, the record fared poorly at retail, and to make ends meet the pianist turned to teaching. He returned to London in 2006 in search of more stable work, although his worsening diabetes limited his ability to perform. An extended residency at the Johannesburg club Bassline was already scheduled when Mseleku died on September 9, 2008. ~ Jason Ankeny