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Chris McGregor

Re-releases from Chris McGregor


by Tim Owen

December 13, 2008


Tim Owen looks at the recent series of re-releases from Chris McGregor and Brotherhood Of Breath

Chris McGregor Group | Very Urgent | 1967
McGregor (piano), Mongezi Feza (pocket trumpet), Dudu Pukwana (alto saxophone), Ronnie Beer (tenor saxophone), Johnny Dyani (bass), Louis Moholo (drums, percussion)

Chris McGregor Septet | Up To Earth | 1969
As for Very Urgent, except: Evan Parker (tenor saxophone) and John Surman (baritone saxophone and bass clarinet) replace Beer; Barre Phillips or Danny Thompson (double bass) replace Dyani

Chris McGregor Trio | Our Prayer | 1969
McGregor, Philips, Moholo

Chris McGregor | Brotherhood of Breath | 1971
McGregor (piano, African xylophone), Feza (pocket trumpet, Indian flute), Pukwana (alto saxophone), Beer (tenor saxophone, Indian flute), Moholo (drums, percussion), Surman (baritone and soprano saxophone), Alan Skidmore (tenor and soprano saxophone), Mike Osborne (alto saxophone, clarinet), Mark Chaig (cornet), Harry Beckett (trumpet), Nick Evans (trombone), Malcolm Griffiths (trombone), Harry Miller (bass)

Chris McGregor | Brotherhood | 1972
As for Brotherhood of Breath, except: Gary Windo (saxophone) replaces Surman.

2008 has been a very strong year for new music in all genres, among which the most welcome and unexpected must surely be two new releases by Chris McGregor: Up To Earth and Our Prayer. Jazz fans will be used to severe time lags between recording and release dates; in this case we’ve had to wait 29 years but finally, thanks to Fledg’ling Records, these two very different recordings are finally with us, beautifully packaged and re-mastered, as part of a series of related reissues featuring McGregor and his fellow South African expatriates the Blue Notes. (Fledg’ling did an equally superb job with their reinstatement of Jazz-influenced 60’s Folk Revivalist Davy Graham to the canon. The superb new Blue Notes box set from Ogun falls outside the remit of this review, but its contents are no less essential.) 

Working conditions in the South Africa of 1964 did not favour racially integrated Jazz groups. The Blue Notes reacted by leaving for Europe, eventually settling in London in ?66, where by all accounts conditions were not much more favourable. Nevertheless they decided to stay, and in ‘67 they recorded and released Very Urgent (originally on Polydor) as the Chris McGregor Group. This sounds to me more dated than the sessions that were to follow - the piano, especially on Marie My Dear, sounds like a decrepit pub upright - but it is exciting stuff nonetheless. McGregor’s style somehow parallels both Cecil Taylor’s fleet, explosive attack and Monk’s probing angularity, and the group sound is rooted in these foundations. Moholo drives everything along in a bustling, polyrhythmic style that has something of the same bristling intensity as Tony Oxley. Don’t Stir the Beehive stands out, with Mongezi Feza and Dudu Pukwana’s unison theme somewhat evocative of Albert and Donald Ayler.

For subsequent sessions, replacements had to be sought for Beer (himself a replacement for original Blue Note Nikele Moyake, returned to South Africa) and Dyani (who spent 1966 touring Argentina with Steve Lacy). They were found among London’s nascent avant-garde Jazz community. For the sessions which ultimately yielded Up To Earth and Our Prayer, both Evan Parker and John Surman replaced Beer while either Barre Phillips or Danny Thompson stood in for Dyani. Our Prayer focuses on a core trio of McGregor, Phillips and Louis Moholo. The sessions were produced by Joe Boyd, who worked contemporaneously with the likes of Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, and the Incredible String Band (he recalls the Blue Notes in the context of the times in his recent autobiography, White Bicycles.)

The impact of the infusion of British players into the established Blue Notes line-up had an discernible impact, with both discs more in tune with the then-emergent European free-jazz style. Up To Earth stands up well alongside acknowledged classics of the genre such as Tony Oxley’s Baptised Traveller, recorded in the same year. Moonlight Aloe opens proceedings in comparatively leisurely style, but the three saxophonists soon dominate, with Parker’s thinner, more strangulated tone goading Pukwana and Surman to a cumulative intensity. McGregor’s piano harries them along with explosive, fragmentary note clusters. Yickytickee ups the pressure, coming close to a riotous free-bop take on Peter Brotzmann’s Machine Gun. Each horn player’s fiercely independent voice is given free rein within a unison chart until eventually they are calmed by the rhythm section, deploying swinging cymbals over a walking bass line. Union Special sees the band launch into a brief coda in the guise of an inebriated marching band. The title piece is calmer, though if anything more urgent, with a theme akin to the late 60s Impulse style and Surman taking extended solos. Years Ago Now begins in a relaxed, mid-tempo swing which evokes the ‘classic’ Coltrane Quartet; across which McGregor scatters skittering keyboard runs. The horn charts allude to big band swing, albeit with all-out free expression. At midpoint, a crying Albert Ayler-like motif is latched onto by the horns and borne aloft on a groundswell of piano and drums; this then drops away to calm piano solo and trio interludes and a turbulent ensemble conclusion.

The Our Prayer trio disc is a beautifully balanced collection. Three relatively short tracks precede the 20 minute-plus title piece, on which McGregor is emphatically the dominant voice and Moholo, in relaxed and expansive good humour, adds light-hearted interjections of metal percussion and toy whistles. Moholo may not be the most precise drummer, but throughout the session he handles the frequent variations in tempo and dynamics, mostly instigated by McGregor, with aplomb. It is impossible to know how much of this music is composed: strong themes emerge to punctuate the incessantly probing flow of ideas without disturbing its continuity. Each player at times comes to the fore to determine the melodic and thematic shape of the music. The piano is favoured by the mix, and bass and drums do at times assume essentially supportive roles, but their contributions are never subordinate. Each musician acts to modulate the tone or dynamics of a piece. No one mood prevails for long, but the transitions are never incongruous; the effect is utterly absorbing. The relatively short Church Mouse bookends a suitably scampering solo from McGregor and a brief arco bass interlude with a hymn-like theme. The other tracks have an almost symphonic richness. The one composition not by McGregor is Barre Phillips’ tough, impressionistic Spike Nard.

These superb recordings were left on the shelf, despite being mastered and readied for release, because all efforts were focused on the founding of a new big band, the Brotherhood of Breath. With the return of Beer, this was essentially the Blue Notes once again augmented by British avant-garde jazz musicians. The music that they played together has elements in common with that of Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, though it retains a unique - though seldom overt - flavour of the Blue Notes’ South African roots.

The first Brotherhood album, Brotherhood of Breath, is widely regarded as a classic. I wouldn’t argue with that at all, although the size of the band makes it impossible to retain the intimate responsiveness that made Up To earth and Our Prayer so special. The group dynamic shifts away from improvisation and emphasises the composing. John Surman continues to play a vital role, but Evan Parker is notably absent, having been replaced by Alan Skidmore and Mike Osborne. The horns are more integrated and the rhythms more regular. McGregor has found himself a decent piano, but his playing seems reigned-in. Moholo exhibits some of McCoy Tyner’s propulsive perpetual motion. The mix gets a bit muddy, with many instruments only dimly audible, but Fledg’ling have minimised this effect, and the sound is audibly clearer than on an earlier issue I have on another label. The Bride has a distinctly African feel, with trumpets answering a main statement from the saxophones. Davashe’s Dream, in contrast, is a ballad with a unison horn chart that evokes the big band sound of the wartime era. The 20 minute Night Poem is much looser. It begins with whistles, rattles and hand percussion as the low horns make allusions to animal calls. McGregor eventually joins in on African Xylophone, picking out a theme which is taken up by Moholo, and then the main body of the band. The music builds in intensity to the midpoint, at which the unison theme is restated by the horns only to dissolve into a brief freeform crescendo. Harry Miller’s bass attempts to reassert a steady rhythm, but the band can’t be tamed; the trombones dominate a gradual diminuendo in the final third, finally giving way to flutes and hand percussion.

The Brotherhood quickly followed up with a second album, simply titled ‘Brotherhood’. Although it is generally considered the lesser of the two albums, and the compositions are certainly more conventional, on Brotherhood the band sound brighter and more unified, with fewer digressions. The effect is punchier: Surman is absent, replaced by Gary Windo. Think of Something features a relatively orthodox sequence of featured soloists. Do It, however, shifts the mood back to abstraction, with abrasive brass and reeds backed by one of the Brotherhood’s strongest riffs. Joyful Noises is essentially an extended piano solo with the band in support, and it is perhaps McGregor’s finest moment on any of these discs.

Despite McGregor’s wish to keep the Brotherhood together, this was not to be economically viable. After Mongezi Feza’s death in 1975, age 30, there would be two further studio recordings: Procession (1977) and Yes Please (1981). Johnny Dyani passed away in 1986, and both McGregor and Dudu Pukwana in 1990. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood persists sporadically in the guise of the Dedication Orchestra. Louis Moholo still occasionally graces stages in Europe, although he returned to South Africa in September 2005.

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