October 29, 2001
CHRIS MCGREGOR & THE BROTHERHOOD OF BREATH
Cuneiform Records Rune 152
Illustrating one of the appealing, yet little explored, tributaries of improvised music, this nearly 80 minute blast from the past presents British-South African pianist Chris McGregor's 12-piece Brotherhood of Breath (BOB) recorded live in a 1973 German gig.
Outgrowth of the racially mixed Blue Notes combo that, because of Apartheid, as forced to relocate from Africa to England in the early 1960s, BOB was an altogether more expansive project. With a nucleus of the original combo — trumpeter Mongezi Feza, alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and drummer Louis Moholo as well as McGregor — it welcomed other immigrants like South African bassist Harry Miller and Barbadian trumpeter Harry Beckett to the fold, and filled out the band with the cream of
BritImprov, here including saxophonists Evan Parker and Mike Osborne.
The result was a free-flowing melange of styles that echoed Township jive, Scottish missionary anthems, the freedom of Energy Music and the close attention to detail that characterized emerging British improvisers. Oh, and one shouldn't forget the ongoing big band tradition, which for these musicians meant what the Sun Ra Arkestra and the Jazz Composers Guild Orchestra were doing, as well as Count Basie's swing and Duke Ellington's early "jungle" band sound.
For an example, listen to Pukwana's "MRA", the lead track, which seems to be one part free jazz and the other African high life, courtesy of its composer and Feza, with the pianist playing ringmaster in the middle. As the rhythm section cleaves to the beat, one of the trombonists soars over the cacophony provided by the other horns, finally resolving his solo in a brisk bebop style. "Restless" is the proper title for the next tune since the band seems to roar into it without a break. As Miller holds the beat steady, McGregor introduces some Monkish interludes and Moholo indulges in some robust rhythmic drumming. Finally before a Pukwana-directed outside section, Beckett offers a muted Lee Morgan-style exploration of the tune.
Conversely, McGregor's "Wood Fire", the longest track, sounds as if it was being created by the Village Vanguard orchestra of the day, if that band ever exhibited freeform flourishes. First trombonist Nick Evans, then section mate Malcolm Giffiths — who has more of a fondness for lip slurs — worry the melody here, as the rest of the band builds up a full head of steam behind them. Alto lines jump from Osborne to Pukwana and back again with someone sounding like he's quoting "Sunshine of Your Love" and the trumpets weighing in with some Arkestra-like tuttis. Finally the piece ends on a massed low trombone note.
Other sounds that appear range from the African-gospelish "Ismite Is Might", which showcases Feza's high note trumpet, to the title tune, a light, swinging Ellington-via-Ra composition which shows how much McGregor, its composer, can extract from an out-of-tune piano. Surprisingly with players whose main commitment was to experimentation, the sax section riffs in unison like a four-piece Basie squad and the tune ends on a dime (or should that be a quid)?
Osborne's tone on his own "Think of Something" even suggests Latin saxophone stylings, not the British freebopper he was. Later, though, after Moholo beats out some carnival rhythms and McGregor some skittering piano, he changes course into a more orthodox bebop approach.
Perhaps the pleasant schizophrenia — real in Osborne's case — exhibited here sums up the reason for the band's relatively low profile. Never a fully free aggregation, ethnic enough to attract the Africanophiles, nor straight enough to give the swing crowd the warm fuzzies, it had to reach audiences through pure musical excellence.
That it had that quality is evident from this CD. It's just a shame that McGregor who died at 53 in 1990 isn't around to hear how well this historical document sounds.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. MRA 2. Restless 3. Ismite Is Might 4. Kongi's Theme 5. Wood Fire 6. The Bride 7. Travelling Somewhere 8. Think Of Something 9. Do It
Harry Beckett, Mongezi Feza, Marc Charig (trumpet); Nick Evans, Malcolm Griffiths (trombone); Mike Osborne, Dudu Pukwana (alto sax); Evan Parker, Gary Windo (tenor sax); Chris McGregor (piano); Harry Miller (bass); Louis Moholo (drums)