Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
The real power of a box set of recordings lies in it potential to alter your understanding of the history that you think you already know, be it of a specific event like John Coltrane’s November 1961 stand at the Village Vanguard or a decades-long collaboration. Some box sets accomplish this through connecting dots previously thought to be unrelated. Others just grab you by the collar until it all sinks in. A 5-CD set that traces the odyssey of the Blue Notes from its early days as a sextet in South Africa until its last late-‘80s vestige as the trio of pianist Chris McGregor, drummer Louis Moholo and alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, The Ogun Collection is one of the few that does both.
Although the Blue Notes’ is one of the most compelling stories in jazz history, it has been universally reduced to well-worn bullet-points of exile and the losses of trumpeter Mongezi Feza and bassist Johnny Dyani. Apartheid is the one-word reason why the Blue Notes left South Africa; for a fuller understanding of its systematic yoking of the country, the litany of laws Tony McGregor cites in his reprinted notes for Legacy – Live in South Afrika 1964 is recommended. Not only did the musicians risk life and limb to perform publicly, but even those who attended concerts like this Durban farewell performance were in danger of brutal police treatment and jail. However, there’s a disconnect – the music itself. The Blue Notes’ music in 1964 was jazz in its purest social form, be it a loping, finger-popper like McGregor’s “Now” or a swoon-inducing ballad like Pukwana’s “B My Dear.” The audience cheers at the end of almost every chorus of Pukwana’s JATPy “Two for Sandi,” exhorting the band to amp up the swing; that evil ruled outside the venue makes their enthusiasm all the more resonant.
Legacy is also one of only two CDs featuring tenor saxophonist Nick Moyake, the first Blue Note around whom the twin themes of exile and loss meld. Moyake became so desperately homesick in their first months in Europe that he returned so South Africa in ‘65, only to die from a brain tumor within a year. The impact of his tenure with the group has therefore prompted little commentary; documentation of the Blue Notes in South Africa remains scant, with the bulk of the group’s discography recorded after the group’s ’67 arrival in London, when their performances became more expansive and the tone of their music took on a sharper edge. Still, Legacy persuasively documents how Moyake anchored the front line, his burly tenor sound complementing Feza’s lean trumpet and Pukwana’s searing alto. He was also a cogent soloist; with a rough-hewn, Coleman Hawkins-like sensibility, Moyake was gritty on burners like Pukwana’s “Dorkay House” and smoldering on “I Cover The Waterfront,” the set’s only standard. There is nothing on this recording or on Township Bop (Proper), which features a blazing Moyake chorus on a short reading of Ellington’s “Take The Coltrane,” to suggest that Moyake could not have stretched his playing like his colleagues had he lived. His potential was enormous.
Arguably, the most pivotal death in the Blue Notes’ history was Feza’s from pneumonia in late ’75, which by all accounts is attributable to medical negligence. Unfortunately, the only gap in the Ogun catalog of Blue Notes albums is Feza’s London years, although the trumpeter can be heard in excellent form on the jaunty Kwela-tinged “Tunji’s Song,” included on the label’s 1973 Brotherhood of Breath album, Live at Willisau. A solo brimming with darting lines and motives that are first tightly coiled and then released with bright lyricism, it is a précis of Feza’s brilliance, even if it not the type of intense, free jazz-informed playing that marked sessions like ‘69’s Very Urgent (Polydor) (a Blue Notes album except in name, it was issued under McGregor’s name, a source of controversy within the band). Feza’s death reunited the surviving members, who had continued to play in each other’s projects, but had all but ceased playing as the Blue Notes; within days of Feza’s death, they recorded nearly three hours of freely improvised music, which, edited for a double LP, was released as Blue Notes For Mongezi in ’76.
Even when it was cut in half, and presented in 19 to 23-minute portions, Blue Notes For Mongezi stormed far beyond the parameters of eulogy and Westernized ideals of ritual; each of the four movements was saturated with palpable rage and grief, even when the quartet was playing off a bright triplet-based bass figure or sun-splashed piano chords. Restored to their original length, each movement is now a marathon catharsis. The Blue Notes veer between chants and grooves, kwela and free jazz, and spirit-summoning rubato crescendos and existential screams. They bear witness, but they also turn nimbly on a dime; Pukwana even launches a sardonic “Yellow Rose of Texas.” However, their considerable, if occasional efforts to recapture the joy that had permeated their music – one that was even evident in their publicity photography during their stay in Switzerland – cannot lift the pall. Blue Notes for Mongezi is their “Guernica,” a panoramic depiction of their world torn asunder.
A year and a half later, Blue Notes In Concert was recorded at 100 Club. It is a comprehensive statement of their development in the decade since they had arrived in London. Compositions are linked through freely improvised introductions and interludes; their traditionally exclamatory tone in stating themes hovers near a fevered pitch; ant their use of older idioms is incorporated in a more kaleidoscopic sensibility than the straight-up celebration of swing heard on Legacy. While the sets’ emphasis on traditional material and older tunes like McGregor’s “Manje,” a slinky mid-tempo blues, may be coincidental, it nevertheless supports the album’s anthological weight. The music often reaches a full boil, but the ripped-scab existentialism of Blue Notes For Mongezi is supplanted by a tone that grafts ferocity onto conviviality. The latter is fueled by the crowd; even though their music had changed significantly since their ’64 Durban gig, ebullient audience response to the Blue Notes had remained constant. Conversant with how the Blue Notes used dramatic swells, rhythmic permutations, and moments of suspended animation, where the four musicians swirl about each other before heading off in a new direction, the audience audibly delights in the wild ride. In addition to being a showcase for their individual talents and their collective strengths, Blue Notes In Concert documents the community they created so far from home.
McGregor, Moholo and Pukwana would convene a decade later to record Blue Notes For Johnny. The approach to the project is markedly different than their memorial to Feza: With the exception of a ruminative, freely improvised duet between McGregor and Moholo, they largely revisited Dyani compositions and traditional melodies in a deliberate manner; Pukwana overdubs his alto on “Funk Dem Dudu,” providing an effective one-two punch; and, there’s unabashed nostalgia in their sanguine reading of “Ntyilo, Ntyilo” and their swing on Pukwana’s “Blues for Nick.” More importantly, the original album ends on a soaring, affirmative note with the pairing of “Ithi Gqi” and “Nkosi Sikelele L’Afrika,” the anthem of the African National Congress. These differences in method and tone can be at least partially attributed to the recording being made nearly ten months after Dyani’s death, instead of the mere days between Feza’s and the earlier recording. By then, McGregor had lived in France for several years and the Brotherhood had all but wound down; this also contributed to the atmosphere of reunion and resolution that permeates this culminating recording.