Mack Avenue Music Group / Artistry Music (release date: April 28, 2023)
By Robert M. Marovich
What makes Ubuntu outstanding is that it doesn’t just feature Jonathan Butler, smooth jazz artist, but Jonathan Butler, smooth jazz artist who has returned to his roots and applied his craft to an expression of African sentiments, sounds, and rhythms. It’s the South African musician’s finest album to date.
The highlight of the album, and indeed of the spring season, is Butler’s duet with blues singer Keb’ Mo, “When Love Comes In.” Drawing on the nonviolent resistance philosophy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Nelson Mandela, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it is a modern-day civil rights anthem with the zeal of “What’s Going On” and “A Change is Gonna Come.” Love is the answer in this song, and since love is in every one of us, every one of us is capable of contributing to the change we want to see in the world. An acoustic bonus track, “Our Voices Matter,” speaks directly to the need for putting love into action.
Indeed, the overall theme of Ubuntu—a Nguni Bantu term meaning humanity—is the unity of humanity and the ability of love to overcome hatred and oppression. So although Ubuntu is not a gospel album per se, not in the traditional sense, anyway, messages of hope and inspiration pervade the project.
Mixed in with the lyrical selections are instrumentals, most strikingly the serene “Peace in Shelter.” As usual, Butler surrounds himself with a coterie of talented and versatile musicians who articulate his vision seamlessly. Multi-instrumentalist and album producer Marcus Miller delivers on bass, keys, tenor sax, bass clarinet, acoustic guitar—basically everything but the kitchen sink. Stevie Wonder makes a cameo on harmonica on the opener, “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You).”
Given the African flavor of the album, the instrumental “Coming Home” might well be its theme song, and “Rainbow Nation” riffs on Mandela and Tutu’s vision for South Africa. Jonathan Butler may have traveled the world with his music, but as Ubuntu makes clear, his heart is in his homeland. A superb album from start to finish.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “When Love Comes In,” “Rainbow Nation,” “Our Voices Matter”